March 30, 2015
Baylor's Sune Agbuke thought she spied the perfect opportunity to sting the defense of the University of Notre Dame women's basketball team during Sunday night's NCAA Championship regional title game at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City.
Agbuke quickly grabbed the basketball after a jumper by Notre Dame's Lindsay Allen gave the Fighting Irish a 69-63 lead with 5:46 left and inbounded it to Niya Johnson.
Johnson took one step and heaved the ball from the Fighting Irish three-point line to Nina Davis as she sprinted down the lane toward the Baylor basket.
Instead of stinging the Irish, Baylor ended up getting swatted.
As Davis lofted a lay-up to finish off what looked like a fast-break hoop, Madison Cable zoomed in from the right side and soared to smack away the shot. Notre Dame ended up having a block party on the defensive end, swatting away seven Baylor shots in all.
Cable's effort highlighted an exceptional Irish defensive effort in the second half and helped the Irish beat Baylor 77-68 to earn a program-record fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA Final Four.
Notre Dame's defense cut down the Bears, and then the Irish cut down the nets to celebrate their seventh NCAA Women's Basketball Championship regional title in school history.
Notre Dame (35-2) plays South Carolina (34-2) Sunday in Tampa's Amalie Arena. The winner returns Tuesday night to play for the national championship.
"I'll tell you, this one was the hardest," said Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw, who guided the Irish to the national championship in 2001. "We had to work the hardest to get to this one.
"I thought we lost so much from last year, and we've lost really good players throughout the years. But after last year's experience and not having any senior starters, you just didn't know how the season was going to unfold. We had so many tough games. I think we played the toughest schedule in the country, so we learned a lot throughout it."
Baylor came out firing, hitting 12 of its first 19 shots (a sizzling 63 percent) to grab a nine-point lead at 26-17 with 11:50 left in the first half.
Notre Dame used numerous different defenses to try and put the brakes on the speedy Baylor attack.
Notre Dame amped up the defensive intensity to ignite a 14-5 run and tie the score at 31-31. The Irish continued in lockdown mode in the second half, limiting Baylor to 12-of-34 shooting (35 percent) in the final 20 minutes.
"The defensive energy that Maddie (Cable) and Hannah (Huffman) brought was outstanding," Irish associate coach Beth Cunningham said. "I thought both of them have just come in at critical times and given us huge minutes.
"The last two games, Hannah has been able to come off the bench and given us such a lift. It's something that we really needed. She's able to match up to a guard or a post. She has an understanding of how to defend and what we need to do to lock opposing players down. Maddie has always done this her entire career. She always seems to find a way to pick up a big charge, hit a big three or get some rebounds. She also was outstanding."
Another critical adjustment for the Irish came with the inside game. Baylor scored 16 of its first 24 points in the paint. Agbuke hit three of her first five shots. But after Irish freshman Brianna Turner adjusted her defensive play, Agbuke was two of seven the rest of the game. She finished with 12 points, down from the 23 points she scored against Iowa in the NCAA Sweet 16.
"We knew Sune was an awesome post player," Turner said. "Whenever she caught the ball and turned, we tried to be there on the catch so we could double-team her because she's an unstoppable force. In the Sweet 16 game against Iowa she hit all those free throw-line jumpers, so we tried to deny that when she was up top.
"On defense, we had to adjust to the screens. In the first half, we weren't playing the screens the way we wanted to. In the second half, we started to get stops."
Cable said the defensive intensity increased for the Irish.
"Baylor came out and made a lot of shots in the first half," Cable said. "We really concentrated on what we had to do. We mixed the defense a little bit.
"The defensive effort was really a matter of we were determined to win. We talked about how we didn't want to go home. We worked so hard throughout the whole year. We wanted to get to the Final Four. We're all so excited."
Agbuke supplied the Irish with a couple of motivational points in Sunday's game. The 6-foot-4 senior post nailed Turner with an elbow - a flagrant one foul - with Baylor leading 27-21 with 8:18 left. Turner hit two free throws, and then Michaela Mabrey connected for a three as the Irish sliced the six-point deficit to one in a matter of 10 seconds.
Then, at the end of the first half, Agbuke hammered Irish star Jewell Loyd with a screen that the Irish vigorously protested.
"After I got hit with that screen, I think that motivated us to play tougher, play harder," Loyd said. "We came out with a lot of energy and focus. We knew we weren't going to give up. That's not who we are."
Notre Dame's regional championship victory against Baylor marked the second season in a row that the Irish pushed Baylor out of the NCAA Championship. Notre Dame bounced Baylor 88-69 in last season's NCAA Elite Eight.
McGraw savored the victory against a Baylor team that many women's basketball experts thought should have been a No. 1 seed, instead of a No. 2 seed.
"That was amazing," McGraw said of the victory against a rugged Baylor team. "I think that was one of the best games in terms of our persistence, our relentless approach. We got down early and we just never quit, and we kept coming back, kept coming at them, did what we had to do.
"I thought Lindsay Allen was just the best point guard in the country today, just an amazing game, tournament MVP. What a great job by this young team that we thought maybe was a year away, and now here we are back in our fifth straight Final Four."
Most of the talk before the regional championship game centered on Baylor point guard Niya Johnson, who had 16 assists and no turnovers. Johnson had another outstanding performance with 10 assists and no turnovers, but the MVP honors belonged to Notre Dame sophomore point guard Lindsay Allen.
Johnson scored six points on three-of-13 shooting.
Allen finished 10-of-16 shooting for 23 points and had seven assists with no turnovers. In the NCAA Sweet 16 game against Stanford, Allen scored 28 points and had four assists.
McGraw said Allen's weekend showed that she is the top point guard in the country.
"Last year she was able to come in and simply run the team without having to be vocal," McGraw said. "She had experienced players all around her. They helped her, they got her comfortable, and then she took us all the way to the national championship game by not making mistakes, by not trying to do too much.
"This year we asked her to do more. We asked her to score more. We asked her to be more involved in the offense, to be more vocal, to be the true leader of the team. And that was a challenge for her, because with a young team there was an awful lot of talking needed and she's not a very vocal person. So I think to see her develop, she worked incredibly hard this summer."
SAVORING THE MOMENT
McGraw took a few minutes to enjoy leading the Irish to their fifth consecutive NCAA Final Four and seventh overall.
"Well, as a coach, I always see what we can do better, and this time I'm planning on celebrating it a little bit more because the players need that," McGraw said about savoring the regional championship. "They need to understand how special this is, and I will enjoy watching the freshmen enjoy it because for them it's the first time, and it's going to be a really special one.
"I think for the whole team, they had a goal at the beginning of the season and now they've gotten most of the way there. They're not going into this just happy to be there. We have been there a number of times and not been able to finish. Each year we feel like maybe this will be our year. But I think we're definitely celebrating this whole week of what we accomplished all year long because only one team is going to win."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent