April 6, 2015
Early in Sunday's Final Four showdown against South Carolina, University of Notre Dame women's basketball player Brianna Turner fired up a jumper trying to beat the shot clock. The basketball caromed off the rim, and headed straight for a South Carolina player along the baseline.
Notre Dame's Taya Reimer hustled toward the ball and outfought the South Carolina player for the ball. She then dished a pass to Turner as the Irish freshman cut to the hoop.
Turner took the pass and hit the lay-up.
It was a play that showed the toughness and the chemistry that the Notre Dame posts have developed through the course of the season, a toughness and chemistry that have helped the Irish reach the national championship game.
Turner finished with 17 points and eight rebounds, and Reimer scored 16 points and battled for six rebounds, and the Irish advanced to the national title contest with a 66-65 victory over the Gamecocks.
Notre Dame will play in the national championship game for the fourth time in the past five seasons. The Fighting Irish (36-2) play Connecticut (37-1) on Tuesday night at Tampa's Amalie Arena for the national title. Tip-off is set for 8:30 p.m. (ET) with the game televised live on ESPN.
Turner and Reimer combined for 33 of Notre Dame's 66 points in the victory against South Carolina. The Gamecocks entered the contest averaging 81.3 points a game, and have dominated inside, led by a front line littered with players standing taller than six feet, including several 6-foot-4 or taller. Turner, Reimer and Kathryn Westbeld turned in an exceptional effort to hold down the powerful South Carolina inside game.
What is even more impressive about the inside job pulled off by the Irish is the fact that Reimer is a sophomore, and Turner and Westbeld are freshmen.
"I'm very proud of this group," Irish associate head coach Carol Owens said. "If it wasn't for them maturing through the year, we wouldn't be here. Everybody knew we had the backcourt, but the frontcourt was the part that we had to develop. They needed time to grow into it."
Reimer, who is 6-foot-3, Turner (6-3) and Westbeld (6-2) have emerged as an Irish force.
"Communication early, was something the posts had to learn, and toughness for sure," Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said of areas of concern for the posts early in the season. "I think they also learned the resilience of knowing that you might miss a couple of opportunities, but you have to come back and be ready."
Turner and Reimer showed exceptional poise defensively, each coming up with three blocks against the taller Gamecocks. Owens expects her posts to also dig in and play tough on Tuesday.
"I think our posts are tough enough," Owens said. "We've had a lot of experience guarding really good posts, playing against really good teams. Now, it's nothing new. I tell them we're going to do what we do, and try to execute that way. My goal for them is to just play their game, and be comfortable doing what they do.
"The main thing I try to teach them is fighting every possession. The game is about runs. Teams are going to make their runs. I told them today, I hope you're learning, no one has to play perfect. You're going to hit adversity, but you have to fight through."
Notre Dame focused on trying to contain the Gamecocks' inside attack, but the at the other end of the court, the Irish weren't going to shy away from the South Carolina height inside.
"It's the Final Four," Reimer said of her seven-of-10 shooting. "It's the biggest stage. We were so pumped and ready to play.
"It's all about heart and it's all about effort, just getting after it. We didn't want our season to end. We definitely have a lot more that we want to do."
Turner said that the first half was critical for the Irish.
"The thing I love about our group is that we really have each other's backs," Turner said. "We're there for each other on and off the court. I think that our off the court relationship helps us play well on the court."
Westbeld agreed that the Irish posts have grown up a lot.
"I think we lacked a lot of toughness in the beginning of the season, but I think we picked it up as the season went on," Westbeld said. "Our toughness has helped a lot. I think we've also developed our chemistry, and that's helped our lobs and back-door passes. We've developed instinct.
"Playing against Taya, Brianna, Diamond (Thompson) and Kristina (Nelson) in practice helps tremendously. They're tall and they're talented. People may not see it, but that's where we grow, in practice, playing against taller people and shot-blockers has really helped us. We're able to score over 6-4 and 6-5 girls because we've worked so hard against each other in practice."
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw wasn't sure that the young Irish, hit by huge graduation losses of starters Natalie Achonwa, Kayla McBride and Ariel Braker, to extend the Irish streak of Final Four appearances to five in a row.
"I remember thinking that and telling the team we lost 40 percent of our offense, 40 percent of our rebounds and 40 percent of our assists," McGraw said. "We really were a very different team, very young team.
"We did not have - we didn't know who the leader was going to be. We really struggled early on with communication, with a lot of little things. And I thought the staff tried to keep it simple. We tried not to overwhelm them with things but freshmen are going to be overwhelmed anyways. So I would say for us to be at this point now is really I think we overachieved to get here."
Irish junior guard Hannah Huffman checked into the game with 13.9 seconds left and one assignment -- harass South Carolina All-America guard Tiffany Mitchell, who was likely to get the final shot as the Gamecocks trailed 66-65.
McGraw trusted Huffman to come up big with a berth to the national championship game on the line, and Huffman delivered. She deflected a pass, and then forced Mitchell in to a wild shot that was way off the mark.
"We knew that she was going to get the last shot," Huffman said of Mitchell. "She's such a clutch player. Against Florida State, she had some phenomenal shots late to help them win, a three-pointer in the corner, a critical lay-up. We knew that's where they were going.
"It was just a matter of keeping her in front, and if she did get a shot off, make sure your hand was there so it's a tough shot. You have to fight through screens, and make sure you're battling. You also have to make sure you're smart, and if she does get a shot off, that you rebound."
Huffman said that she embraces the role of defensive stopper.
"Since the beginning of last year, it's always been my role to be a defensive stopper," Huffman said. "When you're on such a phenomenal team, you take pride in the role you're given. I take a lot of pride in my role. I may not be as much fun to watch as Jewell (Loyd), but it helps our team, and that's all I care about."
Westbeld suffered a tense moment on the bus when the Irish were ready to depart from their hotel to the arena when she realized that she had forgotten her shoes in her room.
"I normally carry them, because there's not a lot of room in my bag," Westbeld said. "I did a last-minute bathroom break, and I just forgot to pick my shoes back up."
"Tuesday, I'll make sure I have them in my bag, or tied around my neck, or attached to my body," Westbeld said.
When Westbeld realized she had forgotten her shoes, she was worried that she was going to have to run back through the cheer tunnel formed by the Irish pep band and cheerleaders at the hotel, and then run back through it all alone. Irish senior associate athletics director and team administrator Jill Bodensteiner came to the rescue, getting off the bus to get the shoes, and bringing them in another vehicle so the Irish could get to the arena on time.
"All props to Jill," Westbeld said. "She made it here quick. At first, I was so shocked I had forgotten them. Jill stepped up and said she would take care if it. That was a real stress reliever."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent