Vanderveer has Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd on her mind

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Long-time distinguished Stanford women's coach Tara VanDerveer probably doesn't remember much about the last time her school and Notre Dame met on the basketball court.

It was, after all, 23 seasons ago — Nov. 24, 1991 to be exact — when Stanford knocked off Notre Dame 88-76 on its way to a second national title for VanDerveer, the gold-medal winning coach of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team.

And while she is good friends with her counterpart at Notre Dame, Muffet McGraw, whose Irish won it all in 2001, there is one person VanDerveer, schooled somewhat at Indiana by Bob Knight, remembers quite well and admires a bunch.

That's Jewell Loyd, Notre Dame's unquestioned leader on the basketball court (20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game) and one of the candidates for player-of-the-year honors when this NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament draws to a close in Tampa, Fla., April 7.

"I watched Jewell Loyd play as a young player," VanDerveer said on the eve of 26-9 Stanford's Friday regional semifinal battle against second-ranked Notre Dame (33-2) at 10 p.m. (ESPN). "She's an absolute phenom."

Trouble was, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw watched Loyd, a Chicagoland native, play, too, when she was going to be a freshman in high school and immediately was impressed. McGraw has now benefitted with Loyd, finally out of the shadow of Skylar Diggins, Natalie Achonwa and Kayla McBride, showing her stuff.

"I think the leader that Jewell has grown into has really, really helped our team," McGraw said as the Irish, winners of 19 straight, attempt to move a step closer to their fifth straight Women's Final Four appearance.

What McGraw really likes about Loyd is the unselfish way she plays when she is struggling. That was evident back in January when Loyd's 60-game consecutive double-digit scoring streak was ended in an 89-79 victory at North Carolina when she was held to eight points. It was evident again Sunday when Loyd scored just 10 points but her fellow starters Michaela Mabrey (19), Brianna Turner (14), Taya Reimer (14) and Lindsay Allen (11) had her back in a 79-67 second-round victory over DePaul.

"It's more than just her and it's more than them individually," VanDerveer said. "They play extremely well together. Again, I think Muffet does an excellent job. They pass the ball, they move the ball really well, they play very up-tempo. They're very skilled players. I think they have very high offensive efficiency, they're very unselfish, they work at both ends of the floor. Quite honestly, they really don't have any weaknesses."

They did on Dec. 6 when a young and developing Notre Dame team, without Turner who had injured her shoulder in a victory over Maryland, was beaten by Connecticut decisively 76-58 in South Bend. That Irish loss came 16 days after Stanford shocked Connecticut, 88-86 in overtime in California, a loss that fueled the Huskies, the two-time defending NCAA champions.

The Cardinal would lose to Chattanooga and Tennessee, two teams that Notre Dame would beat, and five times in the Pac-12 regular season before winning three straight to win the Pac-12 tournament and then the last two in the NCAA tournament, beating Oklahoma 86-76 Monday for the trip to the Sooners' backyard.

"I think they (the Cardinal) are a very balanced team" McGraw said. "They're a very perimeter oriented team and they shoot the 3s extremely well. They're very disciplined, extremely well-coached, a very smart team. You know I think the biggest concern is how smart they are. They run their offense, they're also good at recognizing personnel and seeing some mismatches and weaknesses and really exploiting them."

Stanford is led by 5-7 sophomore guard Lili Thompson, who is averaging 13.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, and Amber Orrange, a 5-7 senior guard averaging 13.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists. Senior forward Bonnie Samuelson is at 9.4 points, while 6-3 freshman forward Kaylee Johnson has been a handful off the bench with 6.0 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks.

Samuelson, meanwhile, has hit 43.9 percent from beyond the 3-point line, just ahead of Orrange (41.5 percent) and sophomore guard Brianna Roberson (35.3 percent).

"You just kind of cross the zone off the list of things that you're probably going to do," McGraw said. "We've got to figure out how we can stop the penetration and the kick-outs."

Stanford, meanwhile, has to figure out how to stop Loyd and the Irish. Stanford has done a good job defending its opponent, limiting them to 36.6-percent shooting and 58.1 points.

"She (Loyd) is a phenomenal finisher and limiting her to the hard baskets will be the biggest thing for us," said starter Erica McCall. "They are a really fast and physical team, so keeping up with their speed is going to be different."

Loyd likes the way her team has been playing of late.

"I think we're playing with more heart and more passion," she said. "People always said that we were really young and right now I don't see that in us at all. We're very confident, motivated and we're taking it one game at a time. We're going along with the ride and we're having fun."

"Their team, if you weren't playing them, would be really fun to watch," VanDerveer said.

Fun is in the eye of the beholder.

Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd (32) has Stanford's attention. Loyd and the Irish face the Cardinal Friday night in the NCAA women's hoops Sweet 16. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)

WHAT: Semifinal games of the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament's Oklahoma City Regional.

GAME 1: No. 2 seed Baylor (32-3) vs. No. 3 seed Iowa (26-7), 7:30 p.m. ET.

GAME 2: No. 1 seed Notre Dame (33-2) vs. No. 4 seed Stanford (26-9), 10 p.m. ET.

WHEN AND WHERE: Friday at Chesapeaka Energy Arena (18,203), Oklahoma City, Okla.

TV: ESPN, ESPN3.com with WatchESPN app

RADIO: WHPZ-FM (96.9), WHPD-FM (92.1), watchND.tv

LIVE STATS: UND.com.

RANKINGS: Notre Dame is No. 2 in both the Associated Press media and Women's Basketball Coaches Association/USA Today rankings; Baylor is No. 5 AP, No. 6 WBCA/USA Today; Iowa No. 18 AP, No. 15 WBCA/USA Today; Stanford is No. 14 AP, No. 17 WBCA/USA Today.

AT STAKE: Berth in Sunday, March 29 regional championship at 8:30 p.m. ET; winner to Women's Final Four in Tampa April 5 and 7.

TICKETS: Available. 

HOW THEY GOT HERE: No. 1 seed Notre Dame beat DePaul, 79-67, to win South Bend, Ind., pod; No. 2 seed Baylor beat Arkansas, 73-44, to win Waco, Texas, pod; No. 3 seed Iowa beat Miami, Fla., 88-70, to win Iowa City, Iowa, pod; No. 4 seed Stanford beat Oklahoma, 86-76, to win Stanford, Calif., pod.

N.D. VS. FIELD ALL-TIME: 0-2 vs. Stanford (last game was 88-76 loss on Nov. 24, 1991 at Purcell Pavilion); 1-4 vs. Baylor (last game was 88-69 victory on March 31, 2014 to win South Bend Regional); 2-0 vs. Iowa (last game was 74-57 victory on March 26, 2013 at Iowa City in a second-round NCAA game). 

STREAKING: Notre Dame has won 19 straight since 78-63 loss at Miami, Fla., on Jan. 8; Stanford has won five straight in sweeping to Pac-12 Tourney title and winning first two in NCAA tourney; Baylor has won six straight since back-to-back losses at Oklahoma and Iowa State at end of February; Iowa has won five of last six, the only loss a 91-85 overtime setback to Ohio State in Big Ten tourney championship.

THE LAST TIME: Nov. 24, 1991, Stanford 88, Notre Dame 76, at Purcell Pavilion (then Joyce Center). The Cardinal, then ranked No. 5, had five players score in double figures, led by Chris MacMurdo's team-high 22 and Val Whiting's 17 (with 11 rebounds). Notre Dame was led by Margaret Nowlin, who scored a game-high 24 points and had 10 rebounds. Comalita Haysbert added 13 points, Tootie Jones had 10 points and eight rebounds and Coquese Washington had six points, 10 assists and eight steals. Stanford, which would go on to win the national championship that season, broke away from a 52-51 lead with a 16-0 run that put the Irish away. Notre Dame also had 30 turnovers with 19 the result of steals by Stanford.

WORTH QUOTING: "(Notre Dame) really play(s) so well as a team. They really pass the ball well. If you weren't playing them, theyâ'd be a fun team to watch." Tara VanDerveer, Stanford head coach.

"You know, I think the biggest concern is how smart they (the Cardinal) are. They're just a really disciplined team." Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame head coach.