Loyd becoming Notre Dame women's hoops' quiet leader

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Prior to this season, Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw talked about finding a leader for her young Irish team.

Being from Philadelphia, where the athletic world had tough leaders like Pete Rose (Phillies), Chuck Bednarik and Norm Van Brocklin (Eagles), Bobby Clarke (Flyers) and Jim Foster, the current Chattanooga head coach and her coaching mentor at Saint Joseph’s, McGraw admits she likes the fiery kind of floor leader.

“Yes, I prefer the in-the-face style,” McGraw said. “I think you need to come into the gym and within five minutes know who the leader of the team is.”

They Irish will need both leadership and endurance this week as they play three games in a six-game stretch, with a visit from Atlantic Coast Conference rival Georgia Tech Thursday night at 7 p.m., constituting the middle leg.

That game follows Monday’s 88-77 victory by the sixth-ranked Irish over No. 5 Tennessee and precedes a quick trip to Clemson, Saturday afternoon at 5. 

McGraw never had doubts in the past when fiery leaders like Melissa Lechleitner, Skylar Diggins and Natalie Achonwa were holding court. But for the most part of this 17-2 season, no vocal leader has emerged, though the Irish are certainly getting leadership from players like Madison Cable, whose dives and hustle are contagious, and guard Lindsay Allen, who isn’t afraid to take charge of the on-court huddles, and winger Michaela Mabrey, who has a little bit of that New Jersey swagger and tongue to get a teammate’s attention.

Sometimes quiet leaders emerge and inspire, and for the Irish, who jumped to No. 5 coaches poll after their wire-to-wire win over the Lady Vols on national TV, that leader is unquestionably Jewell Loyd. Believe it or not, Loyd was someone who, in the preseason, wasn’t McGraw’s choice to lead, just because the coach didn’t want to put another burden on the talented 5-foot-10 junior All-American’s shoulders.

Ah, but the thing about leadership in sports is sometimes the quiet people do lead. To find out who Notre Dame’s leader is you have to show up many minutes before practice starts to see Loyd working on her game, showing others little things — and then long after doing more of the same.

“When you have someone with so much skill and poise, and (you see) they have so much respect for Jewell in what she’s accomplished on the court and how hard she works, they are willing to listen to her,” McGraw said.

Leaders talk, sometimes softly, but they are leaders because others listen and watch and try to emulate.

Loyd, who was battling a severe head cold, saw a 60-game string of double-digit scoring efforts end in Notre Dame’s 89-79 victory at North Carolina on last Thursday and came roaring back with 34 in the victory over Tennessee, scoring 18 of the points after falling hard to the floor with just over a minute to play in the first half.

The Purcell Pavilion sellout crowd was silent until Loyd got up and walked off a sore lower back, and she later came back to corral an errant shot by teammate Lindsay Allen for a basket before the halftime buzzer that gave the Irish huge momentum and a 40-37 halftime lead.

Loyd comes into the game averaging 21.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per outing and likely will draw the principal defensive duty trying to stop Georgia Tech’s talented 6-foot-2 sophomore Kaela Davis, who is averaging 20.5 points and 5.4 rebounds for the Yellow Jackets (12-7, 2-3), who have lost their last two ACC games.

“Kaela is a phenomenal player, a 3-point shooter who can put it on the floor and get her own shot,” McGraw said. “She has great size, so she can score around the basket and rebound. She’s a tough matchup. It will be a really good matchup between her and Jewell.”

McGraw hopes the young team she had at the season’s beginning is rounding into a tough team for the final 11-game stretch to the postseason tournaments. The Irish coach thinks her team can handle the three-games-in-six-days stretch and she doesn’t expect much of a hangover from Monday’s impressive triumph that she thinks was her team’s best game of the season.

“This was our strength last year,” McGraw said. “Our veterans would say, ‘We’re going to play our same game, we’re going to be ready.’”

Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd (32) gets fouled by Tennessee's Bashaara Graves (12) Monday during the Tennessee-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)

WHO: No. 6/5 Notre Dame (17-2, 4-1 ACC) vs. Georgia Tech (12-7, 2-3 ACC)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), South Bend

WHEN: Thursday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available

TV: ESPN3 via live streaming video with the WatchESPN app.

RADIO: WHPZ-FM (96.9)/WHPD-FM (92.1) and WatchND.

WORTH READING: Fans are encouraged to bring new or gently used children’s books to the game as part of Notre Dame’s annual Reading One-on-One book drive. The donations will be made to the South Bend Community School Corporation’s Education Foundation.

WORTH NOTING: This is the third meeting between the two teams and second since Notre Dame joined the ACC prior to the 2013-14 season. … Notre Dame won last season, 87-72, on Feb. 17 in South Bend with Jewell Loyd scoring 27 points and pulling in nine rebounds. The other meeting, a 76-69 Irish victory, took place in Atlanta on Nov. 30, 1996. … The game is the first of two meetings between the Irish and Yellow Jackets, who meet again on Feb. 19 in Atlanta. Georgia Tech is one of two ACC foes who play home-and-home with Notre Dame this season. The other is Boston College, which Notre Dame defeated 104-58 on Jan. 11 in South Bend. The Eagles host the Irish on Feb. 8. … This is also the first of 11 straight regular-season games for the Irish against ACC competition to close out the regular season. The ACC Tournament begins March 4 at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum, and depending on where they finish in the standings and are seeded, the Irish could play as few as three and as many as five games. … The Irish closed out their non-conference regular-season schedule Monday with an 88-77 victory over No. 5/6 Tennessee at the Purcell Pavilion, never trailing in the contest and only being tied once (at 5-5). Loyd led the Irish with 34 points and fellow guard Lindsay Allen had 15. … Georgia Tech hasn’t played since Sunday, when it dropped a 75-72 decision in overtime to visiting Pittsburgh. … The Irish are riding a three-game winning streak, while Georgia Tech has lost its last two since an 80-77 victory at Boston College on Jan. 8. ... Georgia Tech is coached by former Purdue and DeKalb High School standout MaChelle Joseph. She is in her 12th season with the Yellow Jackets and has a 225-141 (.615) record. … Monday’s victory over Tennessee came in Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw’s 900th game with the Irish. She is 680-220 (.756) with ND.

WORTH QUOTING: “We prepared for this (three games in six days) with the tournament we had here (the Hall of Fame Challenge, three games in three days against Holy Cross, Harvard and Quinnipiac in November) and actually five in a week (Notre Dame played Michigan State and Quinnipiac before the other three). But we do need to rely on the bench.” – Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw on playing three games in six days this week.