Notre Dame’s Loyd plays defense, too

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

GREENSBORO, N.C. – She scored on a breath-taking alley oop.

She scored off of a steal, drive and fastbreak layup … and 1.

And she scored on deep 3-pointers.

No. 2 seed Duke faced the full arsenal from Notre Dame star sophomore Jewell Loyd, and it didn’t have a way to counter-attack.

After Duke took a 32-28 lead early in the second half of Sunday’s ACC Tournament championship game, Loyd used the Greensboro Coliseum court as a launching pad. She went on an 8-0 spurt that the Irish turned into a 21-4 run. When Duke tried to inch back, Loyd answered with a fastbreak layup to give the Irish a 65-51 lead with 2:05 left in a game the Irish won, 69-53.

Loyd finished with 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting. She scored 18 points in the second half to help the Irish break away from a 28-28 halftime tie. She hit a pair of 3-pointers, and was 4-of-5 free-throw shooting. The 5-foot-10 guard also led the Irish with three steals, and hauled in seven rebounds.

Even before the confetti and balloons hit the court to celebrate Notre Dame’s 69-53 victory against Duke in the ACC women’s basketball tournament championship game on Sunday night, accolades came pouring in for Loyd, who was named the tournament’s MVP.

“I don’t think there’s any question that Jewell is the best athlete we’ve ever had, and her athleticism, plus her work ethic and the things that she can do, she rebounds, she defends, she does everything, she plays both ends of the floor,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said.

Loyd’s defensive effort was reflected in the numbers put up by Duke star Tricia Liston. The 6-foot-1 senior guard leads the Blue Devils with 17.3 points a game. She hits 53 percent of her field-goal attempts, and leads the nation in 3-point shooting (48 percent).

Against Loyd and the Irish, Liston was 2-of-11 shooting, including 0-of-2 from 3-point range, and finished with four points. Taking away the perimeter from Duke was crucial. Duke, which entered the game leading the nation in 3-point shooting (42 percent), was 0-of-5 shooting 3-pointers, while Notre Dame was 6-of-15.

Liston said that Loyd was a tough match-up for the Blue Devils.

“She’s great,” Liston said. “She’s very athletic. She can shoot the ball. She can drive the ball. We didn’t do that well contesting her and making her take tough shots. She made some big shots, but I think we could have done better locating her quickly, bumping her, trying to wear her out, trying to make it more difficult.”

Getting a break

Notre Dame players get a brief break before returning to practice later this week. Then, the Irish will gather on Monday to find out their first and second-round destinations for the NCAA Tournament. The No. 2-ranked Irish (32-0) are a certain No. 1 seed, along with No. 1 Connecticut.

First and second-round games are March 22-25. The closest first and second-round sites are Toledo and West Lafayette. Notre Dame hosts a regional, which will be held in the March 29-April 1 timeframe. The Final Four is in Nashville, with the national semifinals on April 6, and the national championship game on April 8.

Taking charge(S)

Four times, Duke ballhanders eluded Notre Dame defenders and drove the lane. Four times, Natalie Achonwa made sure the tide turned for the Irish.

The 6-3 post, took four charges — the Irish took five charges overall — and anchored a sterling defensive effort in the ACC title game.

“She’s just tough,” McGraw said of Achonwa. “That’s something that she does, it’s something that Markisha Wright does. We have people willing to give up their bodies. It’s the ultimate sacrifice. Taking the charge is the best example of teamwork. It’s a momentum swing. The other team is about to get a layup, and then you take it away. Taking charges are huge plays.”

Offensively, Achonwa had a rough day, shooting just 4-of-14 for eight points.

“I was struggling on the offensive end and trying to find ways to contribute to the team and to make sure I’m giving us energy,” Achonwa said. “I felt that playing team defense, that’s how I was able to do it on the defensive end. I just wanted to make sure I was there to help my teammates, to get my body in the place we could use it and get them in foul trouble.’’

Praising McBride

Notre Dame senior guard Kayla McBride connected on four of her first five shots and made sure that the Irish matched Duke’s fast start. McBride finished with 25 points. She had 15 of Notre Dame’s 28 points in the first half.

“Kayla carried us in the first half,” McGraw said. “It looked like nobody else could make a shot early. Every time we’ve played Duke, I think she’s made her first four or five shots. She made great shots, had great shot selection. I thought 21 (Kayla McBride) … she plays steady. She’s someone who has been there every single game for us. Kayla McBride, to me, is the best player in the country.”

Perfect host

Greensboro Coliseum will host a regional next season, and Nora Lynn Finch, senior associate commission of the ACC, thinks that the city would be a perfect location for a women’s basketball Final Four in the future.

Tremendous civic support has made the ACC’s women’s basketball tournament a cut above, but the ACC has the tradition of an educational mission that should appeal to the NCAA.

“We have a facility that has space for hospitality,” Finch said of the Greensboro Coliseum complex. “We have very adequate space for media. We have a complex. We’re on a campus, literally. This isn’t just a stand-alone arena. We’re attached to a special events center that has a gym.

“Of course Greensboro could be a Final Four city. We have outstanding hotels here, we’re talking really good quality. The venue is exceptional. The campus offers more than just an arena. It gives a lot of space for youth clinics. On Thursday night, we had a clinic for 1,000 youth of the city. We think that those kind events of reaching out to the community events, to allow youths to grow up with women’s basketball, is an investment in the game.”

Irish items

Notre Dame won its second consecutive conference tournament crown and seventh overall. The Irish won the Big East Tournament title last season. … Notre Dame, in its first season in the ACC, sprinted through the league with a combined 19-0 record in regular-season and league tournament play, the first team outside of “The Triangle” (Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State) to accomplish that feat since the ACC started sponsoring women’s basketball in 1977-78. … Notre Dame is the first team to complete ACC play with a perfect record since 2002-2003, when Duke pulled it off … Notre Dame is 11-0 vs. Top 25 teams, and has won 10 of those games by double-digits.

Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd, right, guards Duke's Tricia Liston during the championship game of the ACC women's basketball tournament on Sunday, March 9, 2014, at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)