Notre Dame's Loyd impresses WNBA scouts

South Bend Tribune

Bill Laimbeer, the coach and general manager of the WNBA’s New York Liberty, sat baseline at Maryland’s Comcast Center on Monday night to check out the seniors with an eye toward April’s WNBA draft.

The player he talked about most was a sophomore.

Jewell Loyd, a 5-foot-10 guard, scored seven of Notre Dame’s final nine points and helped the No. 2-ranked Irish stay undefeated. Notre Dame needed Loyd’s offensive surge to escape No. 8 Maryland, 87-83. The Terrapins rallied from a 22-point first-half deficit and led the Irish by one at the 9:59 mark of the second half.

Loyd scored a career-high 31 points, hitting 12-of-20 shots and 7-of-8 free throws. The sophomore also had seven rebounds, six assists and two steals, both critical thefts in the final minutes. This season, Loyd leads the Irish at 17.7 points a game. She averages 6.2 rebounds and leads the Irish with 29 steals this season.

Loyd missed Notre Dame’s previous game, a 79-52 win over Miami, with a knee sprain suffered in the final minutes of Notre Dame’s 86-70 victory at No. 12 Tennessee. Next up for Loyd and the Irish (19-0 overall, 6-0 ACC) is a home game against Virginia Tech (10-9, 0-6) on Thursday. After that, the Irish travel to play at No. 3 Duke (20-1, 7-0).

Loyd’s performance against Maryland was worthy of All-American talk, and it was a performance that had the numerous WNBA scouts in attendance talking.

Laimbeer starred at Notre Dame and was on back-to-back NBA world championship teams with the Detroit Pistons in 1989 and 1990. As a coach, he guided the Detroit Shock (now the Tulsa Shock) to three WNBA crowns.

“We’re going to draft Loyd this year and take our chances that she’ll come out early,” joked Laimbeer. “No, but she’s pretty good. I think that Loyd is an outstanding guard. Her growth has been tremendous from last year to this year. She just took over.”

Irish Kayla McBride, a 5-11 guard, and Natalie Achonwa, a 6-3 post, and Maryland’s 6-2 forward Alyssa Thomas were the key seniors on the floor.

McBride averages 16.7 points and 5.7 rebounds and Achonwa averages 13.8 points and 8.2 rebounds.

Laimbeer said McBride’s improvement this season puts her into first-round consideration for the WNBA draft. Against Maryland, McBride scored 20 points, including a deep 3 with 11 seconds left to give the Irish their four-point margin of victory.

“I think McBride played with a lot of confidence,” Laimbeer said. “She’s playing solid basketball this year. She’s taught herself to handle the ball a little bit better than she has in the past. That’s a big step up for her for the next level. She gained a lot of confidence playing with USA Basketball. That really helped her out as far as knowing that she can play at a higher level.

“McBride will be in the top seven, easily. Achonwa will be a little lower pick.”

Knee brace

Loyd said that she didn’t feel uncomfortable wearing a knee brace for the first time.

“You love the game so much, you really don’t think about that kind of stuff,” Loyd said. “You’re just trying to focus on the game plan and your teammates and executing.”

No doubting Thomas

Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas brought the Terrapins back from their 22-point deficit with a dominating performance. Thomas had 29 points and 12 rebounds with 19 points in the second half.

“I thought Thomas was so active, trying to get the ball,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “Second-chance points were big. We couldn’t keep them off the glass. They got easy shots. They got offensive rebounds for easy shots (11 offensive rebounds to Notre Dame’s six), and they got a lot of layups. They were making really, easy open shots. I was so disappointed with our defensive effort.”

McGraw said she was surprised when the Irish forged a 22-point lead over Maryland, 41-19, by the four-minute mark of the first half.

“I thought the game would be tight the whole way,” McGraw said. “We were ready for that.”

McGraw said the focus for the Irish after escaping the Terrapins will be defense.

“We did get a couple of stops, not very many, at times, and then we just made big shots,” McGraw said. “Offense has not been our problem. I come away from this game thinking defense is the problem.”

Rough stretch

Notre Dame has now played three Top 15 teams on the road, and face another when it plays at No. 3 Duke on Sunday. Notre Dame is in a stretch of five of seven games on the road, including the last three road trips against ranked teams — No. 8 (Maryland), No. 3 (Duke) and No. 24 (Florida State, where the Irish play on Thursday, Feb. 6).

“I think it’s a challenge for us,” McBride said. “We’re still a young team although we do have three seniors. It’s going to be great for us down the stretch with the NCAA tournament, ACC tournament, I think that we’ve risen to the challenge so far but we have to get better. That’s what we have to do, get back into the gym, get back into practice and just focus on the next game and take it day by day.”

CRallo@SBTinfo.com | Twitter: @rallo_NDinsider

Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd (32) looks for a teammate as she is pressured by Maryland guards Katie Rutan (40) and Brene Moseley in the first half of Monday's game in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/PATRICK SEMANSKY)