March 17, 2015
Jarryd Loyd remembers taking his younger sister, University of Notre Dame women's basketball star Jewell Loyd, down the street to Proesel Park in their Lincolnwood, Illinois, neighborhood. Jarryd was in high school, and Jewell was in middle school.
Proesel Park has a reputation for serious hoops only. It's a place where bruises and bloody noses are as much a part of the game as crossovers and fade-away baseline jumpers.
Point guards have linebacker toughness.
Posts know that any battle for a rebound is likely to come with an elbow to the face.
It was on that day when Jarryd Loyd took his sister to play some one-on-one basketball that he realized his younger sister had a Proesel toughness about her.
"There were two half courts and these two guys, who were in college, were trying to kick us off one of the courts so they could have it," Jarryd Loyd said. "Jewell goes up to them and says, 'We'll play you two on two for the court.'
"First of all, she had the boldness to say, 'We'll play you,' and wasn't afraid, a middle-school girls talking to college guys," Jarryd Loyd marveled. "We played them and ended up beating them 10-2. To finish the game, she threw me an alley-oop pass and I dunked it."
Proesel Park toughness has served Loyd well.
ESPNW recently named Loyd the best in the country for the 2014-15 campaign, and the 5-foot-10 junior guard is expected to repeat as a unanimous All-America selection this season.
Loyd kept going back to Proesel Park, kept staying on the court in five-on-five warfare that involved all boys except for her--and kept developing toughness against fierce competition.
"It was very physical," Jewell said of playing at Proesel Park. "Nobody took it easy on anybody. It still is. Those are the best games I've ever played. They are probably the most exciting games I've played. The Final Fours I've played in, the Tennessee games, the DePaul games . . . the park games are the most exciting.
"You bleed, wrap it up. You don't come out. We've had people break a wrist, and they play the rest of the game left-handed. We're all tough like that."
Loyd, who is looking to lead coach Muffet McGraw's Fighting Irish to a fifth consecutive Final Four, has used her toughness to forge an exceptional season. She averages 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals a game.
Loyd is at her best against the best. In 11 games against top-25 teams this season, Loyd averages 24.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals. She scored a school record-tying 41 points at No. 25 DePaul, 34 points against No. 5 Tennessee and 31 points against then-No. 3 Connecticut.
"I think that's the way you judge a great player, by how she performs in the big moments," McGraw said. "Jewell has played great in the big games. I think she is somebody who rises to the occasion. Whenever we needed a basket in the Duke game, she scored 10 straight points down the stretch.
"Jewell is always the one who takes the big shot and makes it. She also makes other big plays. It's not just about scoring with her. She's a great defender. She's had some huge offensive rebounds in different games. She's elevated her game, and she's elevated the whole team."
Loyd has elevated the Irish to a 31-2 record. The Irish captured the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament championships (both for the second straight year).
Jarryd Loyd, who now runs the Loyd Sports Academy after a successful hoops career at Valparaiso University and overseas, said Jewell's desire to win puts her a cut above the competition.
"Her passion makes her special," Jarryd Loyd said of his sister. "It's pretty simple. Her passion to want to play the game and want to get better and be around the game is what drew me to want to work with her and be a mentor for her. She always wanted to be around basketball.
"Jewell also has the ability to make other players better, and that's very special. Basketball is a unique game. It takes the entire team--10 or 11 players--to form a cohesive unit and be excellent. That happens in practice. That happens off the court. She has the ability to draw people close to her and get people to trust her. Those intangibles are key components of who she is as a leader."
McGraw said that Loyd has taken on the challenge of leadership. Known as a lead-by-example player, Loyd has always deferred to senior leadership. But in a season of transition, Loyd had to emerge as a more vocal leader. She's talking more in the huddle and the locker room.
Notre Dame needed more than a leader's voice from Loyd.
"Jewell embraces the challenge of being targeted," McGraw said. "She prepares for that moment. Coming into the season, she wanted to be the one with the ball in her hands. She has thrived with the pressure."
Loyd has averaged more than 20 points a game despite rarely facing a one-on-one defense.
"Ever since the eighth grade, I've been double-teamed and triple-teamed," Loyd said. "Single coverage ... that's easy. I train for extra attention. It's not tough. It's just a different look.
"I've just wanted the ball more. I've been learning different ways to score. I've wanted to take games over. That's another level of my game that hasn't fully been exposed, but it's getting there."
Loyd's drive to master the game has always impressed McGraw.
"Jewell's work ethic is unparalleled," McGraw said. "She's the hardest worker. She's the first one here and the last one to leave. She's in on her off days. Jack Swarbrick (Notre Dame's vice president and athletics director) said there were times when he would leave the arena at midnight and Jewell would be on the court shooting."
Loyd's work ethic and her talent have vaulted her to player-of-the-year status. Her ability to work within McGraw's system and her leadership have enabled the Irish to vault to championship status. It's a combination the Irish are counting on for NCAA glory.
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent