McBride has a whole lot of fun for Irish

South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Early in the second half, Kayla McBride held the basketball at the top of the key and signaled a rotation play.

Work the ball. Kill some clock. Find an opening.

Then, all of a sudden, McBride’s eyes got as big as saucers. The middle of the lane was open. Taya Reimer sensed what was going through McBride’s mind.

McBride flipped Reimer the ball and broke to the basket. Reimer returned a pass for an easy lay-up and a 21-point lead.

All the way down court, McBride flashed a huge smile.

Hey, that ain’t KMac. All business. Poker face. No emotion. Right?

What did she know that everyone else didn’t?

“It’s something I had to learn,” McBride said. “Sometimes I put too much pressure on myself. I wanted to go out there and have fun. This is my last Final Four ever. I don’t want to regret anything and get upset about anything.

“There are so many players. So many possessions. There are so many things I can do. I want to take it one game at a time. Tonight, I was just feeling it.”

Boy, was she feeling it.

McBride had 19 of her 28 points in the first half and set the tone for Notre Dame to advance to the national championship game with an 87-61 win over Maryland Sunday night.

“She’s been here before,” said Irish coach Muffet McGraw. “She wanted to make it a little easier for everybody else; take the pressure off everybody else. She was having one of those games when everything was going in during the first half.

“She was able to do whatever she wanted.”

The senior first team All-American deserved a game like that. It makes up for the uphill battle she waged last Monday in the regional championship game against Baylor. Less than four minutes into that contest, she had committed two offensive fouls and was relegated to the bench. She finished with 11 points in 18 minutes.

McBride was out of control and out of sorts. Didn’t see any smiles, just an angry snarl. Tough way to go through the tournament.

Certainly not good enough. By a longshot.

Fast-forward to Sunday. The challenge was significant. The 5-foot-11 McBride spent a lot of time dealing with Maryland’s 6-2 All-American Alyssa Thomas on both ends.

Instead of those out-of-control drives that turned into charging fouls, McBride stopped, took the 12-foot jumper, and broke into a grin.

Given McBride’s 28 points and seven rebounds, Thomas’ 14 and six hardly measured up.

“It was more of an awareness,” McBride said of her success – especially defensively – with the matchup. “In the first game (Thomas had 29 points, 12 rebounds) we let her be loose; be too comfortable with the things she wanted to do.”

Maryland coach Brenda Frese went down the list of reasons why McBride was such a tough matchup.

“Her IQ,” Frese said. “She can score the basketball. She gets a clean look, it’s going in.

“In the game, watching her attack our guards, every time she knew (Thomas) had two fouls (with 4:35 left in the first half), she went right at (Thomas). When another of our guards got two fouls, she went right at that guard.

“I probably didn’t appreciate (her IQ earlier). She’s got a high level of understanding the game.”

Beyond the game, McBride had a critical understanding of the situation. Without fellow senior leader Natalie Achonwa (knee injury), the Irish were looking toward McBride for stability.

“It was the whole team,” McBride said of the elevation of play. “Everyone stepped up their game to fill (Achonwa’s) void.

“We’ve been here before. The environment, we’re used to it. We came out: It’s the same kind of court; same length; nothing different. We just go out there and play.”

“(McBride) was seeing it,” said Irish guard Jewell Loyd. She was playing a lot faster (than everyone else). It’s her last Final Four. She’s going out with a bang.”

Achonwa, whose perspective has changed recently, wasn’t the least bit surprised at what McBride was able to accomplish.

“We know that we’ve put in the work beforehand,” Achonwa said. “We know we have the pieces. We have goals that we set at the beginning of the year. We believe so much in each other that we know we’re comfortable.

“I told (McBride) before the game, ‘No one in this country can guard you.’ She smiled and she laughed when she got a bucket because she beat a couple defenders off the dribble so bad it was almost embarrassing.

“It was really exciting to have her come out and shine today.”

Now that’s something to smile about.

Notre Dame's Kayla McBride (21) goes in for a lay up during the NCAA Women's Final Four basketball game on Sunday, April 6, 2014, inside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)