Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd embraces spotlight

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

School was in session often before, sometimes during and even after Jewell Loyd did what she does on the basketball court the past two years at Notre Dame.

Knowing the spotlight would one day shift her way as the premier player for an amazingly successful program, Loyd studied closely how a pair of former teammates worked through similar situations.

As a freshman, Loyd saw how South Bend native Skylar Diggins balanced the demands of going to school so close to home while becoming a national and eventual international name. There were few players with the panache of Diggins.

As a sophomore, Loyd kept a close eye on the way Kayla McBride drove the Irish last winter back to the national championship game. Where Diggins wasn’t shy about speaking her mind, McBride was a lot more reserved, even in times when it was OK to show some fire, some emotion, some passion. She chose her words carefully, and led often by her actions.

Loyd would offer the occasional question to both, then file away all intel for one day down the road.

That day has arrived.

Now that Loyd has stepped into the spotlight as the player for one of the game’s marquee programs, the junior plans to draw on lessons learned from former teammates. There will be times where she mirrors the approach of the emotional Diggins, other nights when she’ll be more like the sure and steady, and sometimes silent McBride.

Through it all, Loyd plans to still be herself.

“I’m not trying to do anything over the top,” she said. “I’m still going to work hard, lead by example, talk a little bit more, just do the little things more. That’s all I can do.

“I’m not trying to come out here and be a dictator or anything like that.”

What she’ll try to be is a really good basketball player who embraces everything about the game – practices, film sessions, conference clashes. And the attention that comes with it? Loyd wouldn’t mind doing without it, though she knows the days of doing something in relative anonymity are done.

“I don’t really like it that much, but I embrace it,” she said. “It comes with basketball and anything else that you’re very successful in. It’s cool.”

Loyd will lead in her own way, which means effort and energy to go with the select few words of wisdom.

“She’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met,” said classmate and teammate Michaela Mabry. “The thing I love about Jewell is she hates losing and that makes us all want to follow her and win for her.”

Accepting the spotlight

A meaningful moment with one of the game’s greats allowed Loyd to understand how important it is to embrace being a face of women’s basketball. Loyd was in middle school when she attended a DePaul game against Tennessee. Watching the game was secondary. Loyd really was there to meet someone she had long admired – fellow Illinois native Candace Parker.

Able to steal a few minutes with the first player to dunk in a women’s college game, Loyd asked for and received an autograph from the 2008 Naismith national player of the year. But in the time it took for Parker to scribble her name – the first of three Loyd has secured over the years – she also gave the youngster much more.

Loyd learned that day that because someone might be a big deal, they don’t have to act like one.

“She took the time out of her day and what she was doing to stop and have a conversation with me,” Loyd said. “That’s very memorable.”

There are places around town – restaurants, the mall, even on campus on home football weekends – where she’s stopped every few feet. Someone wants a picture, an autograph, a handshake, a connection.

Loyd might have much on her mind, but she’ll give them one. And more. Once someone pauses in asking Loyd a question, she’s ready with a few of her own. Where are they from? What are their names? Do they have kids who play sports?

As much as fans want to know about her, she wants to know about them.

“That’s huge with a superstar like her,” Mabry said.

The departures of McBride and Natalie Achonwa, still with the program as an operations specialist, leaves a massive leadership void on a squad that has averaged 33.4 victories a year over the last five seasons with trips to three of the last four NCAA championship games. It would be natural to think that Loyd, on everybody’s All-American list for 2014-15, would step into one of those vacated pair of leadership shoes.

But that’s not the plan, at least not yet. For now, coach Muffet McGraw wants the vocal leadership to be handled on the floor by sophomore point guard Lindsay Allen and Mabry. Allowing those two to do that heavy lifting leaves Loyd to do what she does best – a little of everything.

“We really want Jewell to concentrate on just playing and scoring and rebounding and dunking and blocking shots,” McGraw said.

She was joking about the last two tasks. Maybe.

Good to go

Loyd was bothered much of last season by a bone spur in her left ankle, something she considered “kind of like a scratch.” She started 37 of 38 games (Loyd skipped a late-January game against Miami (Fla.) with a sprained knee) and logged 1,104 minutes. After traveling to Moscow in early June and winning the 3-on-3 world championships with teammates Cierra Burdick (Tennessee), Sara Hammond (Louisville) and Tiffany Mitchell (South Carolina), Loyd spent the rest of the summer resting. She was up and walking the day after ankle surgery, but her borderline-maniacal workout regimen was limited for two months.

Still, the 5-foot-10 Loyd found a way to better her game. She settled in for long stretches in front of the TV to study highlight loops of WNBA standout Diana Taurasi and NBA veteran Manu Ginobili and how they work free off ball screens to maximize scoring chances.

“That helped me see what I can do and take some of their skills out of their games and put them in mine,” Loyd said.

Loyd knows a steady diet of defenders will look to limit her, look to wear her down, look to make anything she might want to do a problem. But the more defenders Loyd has to decipher in getting to the hoop or finding a teammate, the better. It sure beats that first year at Notre Dame when she wondered why nobody seemed to want to guard her.

Operating as a secondary option on a veteran team, Loyd grabbed assistant coach Niele Ivey one day early in fall practice with a concern. It had been so long – and so rare during her dominant days at Niles West High School – that Loyd was defended by only one player.

It was all so new, and so confusing for someone who scored 3,077 career prep points.

“It was always 5-on-1,” Loyd said. “It was a struggle for me to try and figure out how to have a little more freedom.”

Loyd figured it out in time to become Big East freshman of the year. She followed by becoming a consensus All-American as a sophomore. She averaged 12.5 points as a freshman, a team-best 18.5 last year. Halfway through her collegiate career, Loyd is halfway to becoming the fifth player in school history to score at least 2,000 points.

Scoring comes so effortlessly for Loyd, who has a school record-tying streak of 43 straight games scored in double figures heading into 2014-15, but that may not be best for Notre Dame.

“If she has to average more than 20 points a game,” McGraw said, “we’re not going to be very good.”

For the first time in her collegiate career, Loyd will be a decision-maker in late-game and late-clock situations. Two years ago, she deferred to Diggins when someone needed to make the play. Last season, she allowed McBride to be the maestro. Now it’s her turn.

The spotlight says so, and Loyd’s not about to shy away from it.

“I want the ball,” she said. “I think it’s my time to take control. I’m willing to do that and I love that.”

After two years of waiting her turn and watching former Irish standouts Skylar Diggins and Kayla McBride work, Notre Dame junior Jewell Loyd rotates into the spotlight as the top player for the Irish. (SBT File Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)