Loyd’s game for Notre Dame women's basketball impresses Thorne

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

TOLEDO – Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne remembers going to Chicago four years ago to check out high school prospects during summer tournament action.

One player in particular caught her eye, Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd.

“Can she dunk?” Thorne asked after watching Loyd toss in alley-oops against Robert Morris in Saturday’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament first-round romp for the Irish. “She plays above people.”

Thorne said Loyd’s athletic ability impressed her when the Lincolnwood, Ill., native was a sophomore in high school.

“I thought she was the best player in the country when I saw her,” Thorne said. “The first time I saw her, I was like, who is that kid?”

Loyd has developed into a player who leads No. 1 seed Notre Dame (33-0) with a scoring average of 18.4 points a game, and is getting plenty of attention for All-American honors. In her brief career, Loyd has added maturity and toughness to her athletic ability.

“Notre Dame has done an amazing job of continuing to develop (Loyd),” Thorne said. “She doesn’t seem to be affected by anything, and she lets the game come to her.”

Game plan

Arizona State has to figure out a way to put the brakes on an Irish team that averages 86.8 points a game.

Thorne said she’s used a slow-down strategy before, but that strategy may not work against the Irish because of Notre Dame’s relentless defense.

Stopping Notre Dame’s big three – Loyd (18.4 points a game, Kayla McBride (17.2) and Natalie Achonwa (14.1) – hasn’t been pulled off in 33 previous games. Keys for the Sun Devils to keep Notre Dame within striking distance?

Prevent easy shots, keep the Irish off the free-throw line and eliminate the transition game. If that happens, the Irish will lose about one-third of their offense.

“No second shots, no free throws and take away their transition … even the best teams in the country aren’t going to score more than 60 points in a half-court set, especially against our defense,” Thorne said. “I think it’s solid.”

Irish greatness

Thorne said this season’s Irish may be the best squad in Muffet McGraw’s tenure. She’s impressed with the talent level of the Irish, their competitiveness, and their depth.

“What they have been able to do with a really tough schedule, probably tougher than anyone’s in the country … to shoot 51 percent from the field, with that schedule, is pretty fantastic,” Thorne said. “To be plus-10 on the boards with that schedule, I mean, that’s a team that usually goes to the Final Four or wins the national championship.”

Regional venues

In an attempt to boost attendance at regionals for the NCAA women’s tournament, the NCAA allowed participating schools to host the events this season. Notre Dame, Stanford, Nebraska and Louisville will have regionals on their home courts.

After coaches across the country protested the move, the NCAA is returning to neutral sites for regionals. Greensboro, N.C., Albany, N.Y., Oklahoma City and Sacramento, Calif., are hosting next season.

Where to have women’s basketball regionals has been a nagging problem for the NCAA. Growing the sport and increasing revenue are prime concerns. Suggestions have varied from having regionals at historic sites, such as Philadephia’s Palestra or Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse, to considering permanent sites so the women’s game can grow a strong base, much like Omaha has embraced the college baseball World Series.

Venues are also key to the sport. Notre Dame played in the 2012 regional at Raleigh’s PNC arena, which seats nearly 20,000. Small crowds in an arena that was only about one-fourth full at best seemed to tone down the event. The more compact Ted Constant Arena in Norfolk, Va., where Notre Dame played in the regional last season, seats about 9,500 and offered a more electric, intimate setting.

Irish coach Muffet McGraw thought Dayton, where the Irish played in 2011, was a perfect site. The Atlantic 10 venue is located in Big Ten country, but is also fairly close for teams in the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference. She pointed out that Greensboro has done an exceptional job of supporting the ACC women’s basketball tournament, and that Oklahoma City also drew big crowds for the Baylor-Texas A&M showdown in 2012.

McGraw thinks that the potential matchups are something that the NCAA has to consider.

“If you can get the right teams there, you’re going to have a great site,” McGraw said. “I think it really depends on the fans that the teams are bringing in for the regionals.”

No jet lag

Arizona State’s first-round game against Vanderbilt was at 11 a.m. in Toledo. That’s 8 a.m. Pacific time.

Thorne said the Sun Devils tried to get their body clocks on East Coast time during the week. As soon as she found out that the Sun Devils would have an 8 a.m. Pacific time tip-off, she told her players to get to bed by 10 p.m. the first night, and then each night leading up to Saturday’s game, go to bed earlier and earlier.

“I want to give a huge shout-out to our team and compliment them on their maturity, because, I mean, these are college students, right. All week long, they got themselves to bed early, and by Saturday, they were on East Coast time.”

Arizona State handled the early start, shooting 61 percent and beating Vanderbilt, 69-61.

Battle tested

When Robert Morris threw a 2-3 trap at Notre Dame on Saturday, it wasn’t a problem. The Irish had seen that defensive scheme three times already in the ACC. Playing in the 15-team power conference gave Notre Dame a chance to see a variety of styles and to match up against great players.

Notre Dame has reference points for opponents, by being able to compare a player matchup in the NCAA Tournament to an ACC player that the Irish have already faced. A power forward who averages double-doubles? Alyssa Thomas of Maryland. A 3-point shooting threat? Tricia Liston of Duke. An athletic, up-tempo team? Syracuse.

“Playing in the ACC, we’re battle-tested,” McGraw said. “And to play all those games, and to win them all, gives us a lot of confidence.”

CRallo@SBTinfo.com

Twitter: @rallo_NDInsider