Irish must hit boards to play on

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – There was one game in Notre Dame’s undefeated women’s basketball regular-season run in which Irish coach Muffet McGraw walked off the court and felt more disappointment than elation.

That was when the Irish saw a 22-point lead disappear before escaping a Jan. 27 game at Maryland with an 87-83 victory.

Sunday night, with so much more at stake, No. 1 seed Notre Dame (36-0) faces No. 4 seed Maryland (28-6) again.

Notre Dame and Maryland are scheduled to tip-off at 6:30 p.m. EDT Sunday in NCAA women’s basketball national semifinal action in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. Overall No. 1 seed Connecticut (38-0), pursuing a record ninth national championship, plays No. 2 seed Stanford (33-3) at approximately 9 p.m.

The national championship game is set for 8:30 p.m. EDT on Tuesday.

In their most recent meeting, McGraw saw her team’s poise melt quickly after Michaela Mabrey hit a 3-pointer to give the Irish a 41-19 lead with 4:00 left in the first half. Maryland shaved 10 points off of the Irish lead by halftime, trailing 47-35.

In the second half, Maryland closed to two points twice. Jewell Loyd connected with 1:03 left, and Kayla McBride finished the Terrapins off with a deep jumper with 11 seconds left.

Two obvious truths emerged from the first meeting between Notre Dame and Maryland, said ESPN’s Kara Lawson, who provided analysis of the game.

“Maryland has zero players who can guard Jewell Loyd, exactly zero,” Lawson said. “But that’s OK, because Notre Dame has zero players who can guard Alyssa Thomas, exactly zero.”

Loyd scored 20 points in the first half on Jan. 27, and finished with a career-high 31. Thomas scored 29 points – 19 in the second half – and had 12 rebounds.

“Maryland was passive defensively, and it allowed Notre Dame to get in its rhythm in the first half,” Lawson said. “In the second half, Maryland upped the aggression a little bit, pounded the glass, and was able to kind of get Notre Dame on its heels a little bit.”

Notre Dame outscored Maryland in the paint in the first half, 22-20. Maryland outscored Notre Dame in the paint in the second half, 30-12. The Irish held a two-rebound edge from the first half to the second half, but the biggest different was that Maryland went from a 5-2 edge in offensive rebounds in the first half to a 17-10 edge in the second.

With star post Natalie Achonwa (14.9 points, 7.7 rebounds a game) sidelined with a torn ACL, Notre Dame will have to look to other players to step up its rebounding effort.

Freshman post Taya Reimer is expected to start in place of Achonwa. At times, the Irish will likely show the Terrapins a four-guard offense that will showcase the 3-point shooting talents of Michaela Mabrey. Mabrey scored 13 points in the regular-season victory against Maryland, including 3-of-6 from behind the arc.

Stopping Thomas, a 6-2 first-team All-American, is the main priority for the Irish. The senior is Maryland’s all-time leading scorer (2,342 points), and needs one more rebound to own the Maryland career record (1,229 set by Crystal Langhorne). Thomas averages 19.1 points and 11.0 rebounds a game.

“That girl is relentless,” McGraw said. “She plays so hard, so it's really, really hard to guard her, because she's so active going after the ball.”

Guarding Thomas requires an active, physical player to match Thomas’ aggressiveness and keep her off the boards.

Notre Dame’s other main concern is guarding point guard Lexie Brown, the daughter of former NBA dunk champion and Boston Celtics star Dee Brown. Lexie Brown averages 10.1 points and 4.1 assists a game, and has the quickness to cause the Irish trouble in the transition and on defense.

Ever since a painful 84-63 loss at Duke, the Terrapins have been on a roll, winning eight of their last nine games. The loss was a 73-70 setback to North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.

“They're very dangerous,” McGraw said. “They're a team that has really, really kind of hit their stride lately.”

Frese said that the two weeks off after the ACC Tournament loss to North Carolina was a critical time for the Terrapins.

“After the Carolina loss the practices were grueling,” Frese said. “So it was a mindset that you're going to figure out how to – you're going to get tougher and you're going to learn what it takes to fight or this is it.”

Maryland responded, winning at Louisville 76-73 for the regional title.

Notre Dame will be counting on wings Jewell Loyd (18.8 points, 6.4 rebounds) and Kayla McBride (17.2 points, 5.2 rebounds) to spearhead the attack in Achonwa’s absence.

“Notre Dame has the best 1-2 punch in the country when you talk about Loyd and McBride,” Frese said. “They've been devastating all season.”

Loyd, a 5-10 sophomore, presents a problem for the Terrapins, because she can post up their smaller guards, and outquick their forwards.

Toughness on the boards is what McGraw views as the key element. That was the area she was most disappointed in when she looked back on the regular-season victory against Maryland.

“They’ve got so much size inside, they’re physical, they’re skilled, and for us losing our leading rebounder (Achonwa) creates a little bit of a problem in that area,” McGraw said. “If everybody just gets one or two more rebounds, we’re trying to make up for what Natalie would have given us.”

Defense will be the name of the game Sunday for Jewell Loyd, left, and Kayla McBride during Sunday's national semifinal game against Maryland. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN).