No Achonwa, no problem for Irish women

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Maryland planned on crashing the NCAA women’s basketball national championship party.

Instead, Notre Dame crashed the boards, and the Terrapins’ dream of knocking off the unbeaten Irish hit a wall.

Notre Dame, despite missing star post Natalie Achonwa, dominated inside to blast Maryland, 87-61, and advance to the NCAA women’s basketball national championship game for the third time in four seasons. The Irish margin of victory of 26 points was the third highest in a national semifinal game.

No. 1 seed Notre Dame (37-0) will play overall No. 1 seed and defending national champion Connecticut (39-0) in an unprecedented meeting of two unbeaten teams in the national championship game.

The title contest is set for an 8:30 p.m. EDT tip-off on Tuesday at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. ESPN has the telecast.

“I want them to have that ring that says I’m a national champion,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said of her players. “I think this team has been mentally tougher than any other team I’ve had.”

McGraw said that the Irish were determined to overcome the adversity of losing Achonwa, who suffered a torn ACL in last Monday’s regional championship victory against Baylor.

“I think you could see it in their eyes,” McGraw said. “They were determined that this (Achonwa’s injury) was not going to slow them down.”

Notre Dame carries the Atlantic Coast Conference banner to the national championship game, becoming the first ACC school to play in the title game since Maryland defeated Duke in an all-ACC final in 2006.

Maryland’s season, its final in the ACC before moving to the Big Ten, is over at 28-7.

Notre Dame overpowered Maryland for a whopping 50-21 rebounding advantage. The Irish turned a 19-4 edge in offensive rebounds into a 20-3 advantage in second-chance points. Notre Dame’s plus-29 rebounding margin set a record for any Final Four game (semifinal or championship), topping the mark of (+27) set by Old Dominion set against Georgia in 1985).

“They punched first and they beat us at our game on the boards,” Maryland center Alicia DeVaughn said. “We just couldn’t bounce back.”

Kayla McBride led Notre Dame with 28 points and seven rebounds. Jewell Loyd scored 16 points for the Irish, including an alley-oop to give Notre Dame a 23-17 lead with 10:14 left in the first half.

Maryland All-American Alyssa Thomas, who scored 29 points and had 12 rebounds in an 87-83 regular-season loss to Notre Dame, scored 14 points and six rebounds. Notre Dame fronted Thomas, double-teamed her off screens, ran additional defenders at her, forced the southpaw to her right and set up to take a charge.

Two early charging fouls put Thomas on the bench for four minutes in the first half. The Irish lead forced Maryland to put her back in the game, but the Irish defense denied her the ball and started forcing Maryland to shoot jumpers. Thomas took 13 shots, compared to 22 in the regular-season meeting.

McBride, a 5-11 senior guard, was 20-of-55 for 36 percent in four NCAA Tournament games heading into the Final Four. Against Maryland, she was 12-of-21. The silky smooth shooter played her game, juking Maryland players to create space for deep jumpers, pushing the ball in transition.

In a game where McBride might have tried to do too much trying to offset the absence of Achonwa, McBride didn’t force shots the way she had in earlier tournament games.

“I was trying to have fun,” McBride said. “I thought in past games, I pressed a little bit.”

Notre Dame stormed to a 48-31 halftime lead. The Irish first-half point total of 48 was the most ever in a national semifinal game.

Notre Dame outrebounded the Terrapins 23-8 in the first half. That led to a 12-0 edge for the Irish in second-chance points. Notre Dame played eight players in the first half, and all eight swarmed to the boards for at least one rebound in the first 20 minutes.

McBride scored 19 points in the first half, sparking a blistering Irish attack that outscored Maryland 25-10 in the final 7:56. Notre Dame hit 12 of its last 18 shots during the run.

Notre Dame worked the transition on turnovers and rebounds. Notre Dame committed seven turnovers to Maryland’s nine, but the Irish had a 17-2 advantage in points off of turnovers thanks to the up-tempo gear the Irish shifted into as soon as they got their hands on the ball.

Markisha Wright made a huge impact in the first half. Maryland scored its first four baskets on lay-ups inside as it sliced through the Irish interior defense. Wright quickly checked in for freshman post Taya Reimer and helped seal off the lane. Maryland went from an 8-2 advantage in points in the paint, to suddenly seeing Irish putbacks and transition layups spearhead a 20-2 swing in points in the paint. Notre Dame finished with a 26-16 edge in points in the paint.

“I thought (Notre Dame) set the tone from the first possession with the offensive rebounding, being dominant on the glass,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “(I’m) so disappointed, obviously, in terms of our lack of response to it.”

MARYLAND (28-7): Brown 3-10 4-6 11, DeVaughn 1-1 5-6 7, Thomas 5-13 3-4 14, Rutan 0-1 0-0 0, Jones 7-10 2-4 16, Austin 1-2 0-0 2, Mincy 5-10 0-0 11, Moseley 0-1 0-0 0, Howard 0-1 0-0 0, Pavlech 0-0 0-0 0, Townsend 0-0 0-0 0, Pfirman 0-1 0-0 0, Walker-Kimbrough 0-4 0-0 0. Totals 22-54 14-20 61.

NOTRE DAME (37-0): Reimer 3-10 3-4 9, Allen 2-3 5-7 9, McBride 12-21 3-3 28, Loyd 6-11 3-6 16, Braker 1-3 0-2 2, Holloway 0-0 0-0 0, Nelson 0-0 0-0 0, Cable 2-3 2-2 7, Mabrey 0-4 0-0 0, Huffman 2-2 0-0 4, Wright 4-6 4-4 12. Totals 32-63 20-28 87.

Halftime — Notre Dame 48-31. 3-Point Goals — Maryland 3-12 (Thomas 1-1, Mincy 1-4, Brown 1-5, Rutan 0-1, Austin 0-1), Notre Dame 3-10 (Loyd 1-2, Cable 1-2, McBride 1-4, Allen 0-1, Mabrey 0-1). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — Maryland 21 (Thomas 6), Notre Dame 50 (Loyd, Wright 9). Assists — Maryland 16 (Brown 8), Notre Dame 15 (Allen 5). Total Fouls — Maryland 22, Notre Dame 16. A — NA.

Kayla McBride and Notre Dame sailed into Tuesday's national championship game with an easy win over Maryland. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN