Notre Dame’s big three coax top seed into Sweet 16

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

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TOLEDO, Ohio — Arizona State’s game plan Monday night centered on taking away Notre Dame’s big three — Natalie Achonwa, Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd.

The Sun Devils did take away Achonwa, McBride, and Loyd, but never long enough, and never all at the same time.

Top-seeded Notre Dame’s big three combined for 66 points, nearly outscoring the Sun Devils in an 84-67 victory for the Irish in second-round NCAA women’s basketball tournament play at the University of Toledo.

Achonwa had 25 points and 11 rebounds, McBride had 22 points and nine assists, and Loyd had 19 points and seven rebounds against ninth-seeded ASU to make sure there would be a home team for the Notre Dame Regional next Saturday.

Notre Dame (34-0) plays No. 5 seed Oklahoma State (25-8) on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. No. 2 seed Baylor (31-4) plays No. 3 seed Kentucky (26-8) in the other game on Saturday, at noon. The Notre Dame Regional championship, with a berth to the Final Four on the line, is at 7:30 p.m. on next Monday night.

Achonwa scored 12 of Notre Dame’s first 16 points, and then went to the bench with two fouls. She sat the final nine minutes of the first half. When she returned to play in the second half, she continued to rip through the Arizona State defense.

Using her explosive first step, Achonwa was too quick for the Sun Devils (23-10) to guard. When they did front her, she used a spin move. Passes to her in the low post were turned into baskets, thanks to power moves to the hoop.

“We thought (Achonwa) had an advantage speed-wise,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “We thought she could put it on the floor and drive by them.”

Or get fouled. ASU sent Achnowa to the free-throw line 12 times, where she hit nine. Achonwa was 8-of-10 field-goal shooting.

“They were very aggressive, and we were able to look for the back doors,” Achonwa said of her advantage inside. “Cutting and getting open as quickly as I could really helped.”

When Achonwa was on the bench saddled with two fouls, and McBride was struggling with 2-of-11 shooting in the first half, Loyd stepped up. The 5-foot-10 sophomore guard scored nine points in a row as the Irish built a 27-21 lead.

Loyd tormented the Sun Devils in different ways, scoring on the fast break, slashing to the hoop, and hitting long-range jumpers.

“I was just trying to get some energy back for the team,” Loyd said of her scoring surge. “I thought we were a bit stagnant at times, and we definitely had to keep pressuring, rebounding and capitalizing on transition shots.”

McBride took over for the Irish in the second half, hitting six of her last eight shots. She nailed a pair of 3-pointers and helped the Irish open up a 25-point lead with 6:24 left in the game.

“I think it came down to me being relaxed,” McBride said of snapping out of her shooting slump. “I felt pressured a little bit with (point guard) Lindsay (Allen) out of the game and I felt like I was doing too much.”

Allen’s foul trouble forced her to the bench. She had two in the first half and finished with four for the game.

Meanwhile, McGraw knew that Achonwa, McBride and Loyd would deliver big numbers.

“In a pressure game like this, you’ve got to rely on your big three,” McGraw said.

Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne said that the Irish pick-your-poison offense was too much for the Sun Devils. She said Notre Dame’s depth could carry the Irish to a national title.

“They have their big three, and then they bring their shooters in,” Thorne said. “They have different scorers they can go to if the big three are struggling.”

Notre Dame’s bench showed up big at the end of the first half. Arizona State closed to 29-26 with 42 seconds left, but reserve Michaela Mabrey connected on a 3 with 31 seconds left.

“I thought that the 3 by (Mabrey) at the end of the first half was a momentum swing,” McGraw said. “That gave us some energy, and then we came out and had a 6-0 run to start the second half.”

Notre Dame’s 22 turnovers were a major concern for McGraw. The Irish limited their transition game with a lack of rebounding, and then stopped themselves in transition by going up the middle right into the Sun Devils’ defense, or by making careless passes.

In the first half, the Irish also dealt with rough shooting. The Irish were 10-of-23 (44 percent), but hit 18-of-34 in the second half (53 percent).

“We looked at (Arizona State’s) numbers at halftime, and 17 of their 26 points were either off turnovers or offensive rebounds,” McGraw said. “We told them we just needed to take care of the ball and rebound.”

ARIZONA STATE (23-10): Deja Mann 5-9 4-4 16, Promise Amukamara 2-6 0-0 4, Sophie Brunner 1-6 5-6 7, Elisha Davis 0-8 2-2 2, Kelsey Moos 2-6 0-0 4, Katie Hempen 1-4 2-4 4, Amecia Hawkins 4-7 0-1 9, Joy Burke 3-3 1-1 7, Adrianne Thomas 3-6 8-8 14, Quin Dornstauder 0-0 0-0 0, Eliza Normen 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 21-56 22-26 67.

NOTRE DAME (34-0): Natalie Achonwa 8-10 9-12 25, Lindsay Allen 1-2 2-3 4, Kayla McBride 8-19 4-4 22, Jewell Loyd 5-12 9-11 19, Ariel Braker 1-2 0-0 2, Whitney Holloway 0-2 0-0 0, Kristina Nelson 0-0 0-0 0, Taya Reimer 2-5 1-2 5, Madison Cable 2-2 0-0 4, Michaela Mabrey 1-2 0-0 3, Hannah Huffman 0-0 0-0 0, Markisha Wright 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 28-57 25-32 84.

Halftime — Notre Dame 32-26. 3-Point Goals — Arizona St. 3-14 (Mann 2-5, Hawkins 1-3, Thomas 0-1, Hempen 0-1, Davis 0-4), Notre Dame 3-6 (McBride 2-4, Mabrey 1-1, Loyd 0-1). Fouled Out — Amukamara, Burke. Rebounds — Arizona St. 31 (Brunner 10), Notre Dame 39 (Achonwa 11). Assists — Arizona St. 5 (Davis, Mann 2), Notre Dame 19 (McBride 9). Total Fouls — Arizona St. 27, Notre Dame 22. A — 3,544.

Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd, center, looks for a shot between Arizona State's Katie Hempen, left, and Elisha Davis during the second round NCAA women's basketball tournament game on Monday,  inside Savage Arena at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa (11) goes up for a shot next to Arizona State's Joy Burke, right, during the second round NCAA women's basketball tournament game on Monday, March 24, 2014, inside Savage Arena at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame's Kayla McBride, right, moves by Arizona State's Katie Hempen (0) and Kelsey Moos (24) during the second round NCAA women's basketball tournament game on Monday, March 24, 2014, inside Savage Arena at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN