Determination drives ND sophomore Loyd

South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For Jewell Loyd, a trip back to the Final Four is strictly business.

The Notre Dame sophomore will drop the words “exciting” or “fun” every once in a while, maybe even flash a smile. But little seems to distract her from her goal.

“It’s definitely exciting but it’s a business trip,” Loyd said. “We’re taking it day by day and trying to stay focused.”

Loyd brushed off a question about the meaning of winning a national championship, insisting the focus is on Sunday’s rematch with Maryland. She means business, and as of late, the guard has been in the scoring business.

Since the start of March, Loyd is averaging 20.1 points per game. With the absence of post player Natalie Achonwa, Loyd will likely be relied on even more.

Since the team learned the diagnosis of Achonwa’s season-ending knee injury, head coach Muffet McGraw has started to sort out a game plan. The Irish already have a blueprint to beat the Terrapins with January’s 87-83 victory. In that game, Achonwa scored only seven points in 21 minutes, but there’s a big difference between playing more than half the game and the zero minutes she will offer Sunday.

“It’s good for us to see what it would be like without her in the game,” McGraw said. “It’s a scary thought in a lot of ways, but there are so many other things we can do. Our bench has been great all year long. We just hope one of them steps up early.”

McGraw won’t be able to

plug in former Irish standout Skylar Diggins, who was with the team at practice Thursday back on campus. She may just have to rely on her newest scoring machine in Loyd.

The presence of Diggins has been an inspiration.

“It means a lot,” Loyd said. “She’s a part of this community, a part of this family. She’s here and she makes us better every day. Without her, who knows what could happen? She’s here. She loves us. It makes us play harder and better.”

It’s hard to imagine a better Loyd than the one that scored a career-high 31 points against Maryland earlier this season. Then again, she is coming off a 30-point performance against Baylor in the regional championship. She can carry a team, but the trust in her teammates doesn’t allow her to feel pressure.

“There’s not much pressure,” Loyd said. “The last game we played against Maryland, we didn’t have (Achonwa) or (Kayla McBride) in the first half. We’ve played without her before. I have confidence in our freshmen. I have confidence in our bench. Everybody’s ready to step up. This is what you want. This is what they’re waiting for. We have nothing but confidence.”

Loyd and McBride, the team’s top two scorers, remain the constants. But will Notre Dame have an advantage with Maryland not knowing what different lineups the Irish could use without Achonwa?

“You never really know,” Loyd said. “With your team and how we play, anyone could go off for 20 (points). Anyone could go off for 30. We have that confidence in our team. Madison Cable’s doing a great job coming off the bench. Michaela Mabrey does a great job. This is a new experience and we’re ready to play the game.”

Loyd may be asked to crash the glass a little more without Achonwa, the team’s leading rebounder. At 5-foot-10, Loyd already averages 6.4 rebounds – good for second on the team. If all goes well, Loyd won’t have to be extraordinary for the Irish to win. It helps that her ordinary is better than most.

“We’re not going to do anything outside our comfort zone or anything like that,” Loyd said. “We’re going to stick to our game plan and have fun.”

No one said business couldn’t be enjoyable.

Notre Dame sophomore Jewell Loyd is determined to play through any and all distractions of the Final Four this weekend in Nashville. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)