Notre Dame squeaks by South Carolina to secure spot in NCAA title game

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

TAMPA, Fla. — Thanks to one of the most improbable finishes in program history Sunday night, Notre Dame's women's basketball team gets a shot at powerful No. 1 Connecticut in Tuesday's NCAA Championship Game.

With freshman forward Brianna Turner, the team’s best shot-blocker and rebounder, fouling out with 3:11 remaining in regulation, with point guard Lindsay Allen – the MVP of the Oklahoma City Regional with a 25.5 scoring average – held scoreless and fouling out with 1:39 remaining, and with the team trailing for the first time with 1:12 left while in the midst of a 7:35 scoreless string, things couldn’t have looked bleaker for No. 2 Notre Dame against third-ranked South Carolina in Sunday’s first semifinal at Amalie Arena.

Or brighter, if you consider Notre Dame’s point of view.

Senior reserve Madison Cable came up with an offensive rebound and basket off a Jewell Loyd miss with 16 seconds remaining and then bench defensive specialist Hannah Huffman joined Cable and Loyd to hound the Gamecocks’ Tiffany Mitchell into an errant 3-point shot, and the Irish advanced with a 66-65 victory, the 22nd straight for a 36-2 team that McGraw and her coaching staff thought was a year away from challenging for a national title.

“It’s surreal right now,” said McGraw, who will coach in her fifth national title game, the fourth in five seasons and the second straight against her long-time fellow Philadelphia nemesis Geno Auriemma and his Huskies. Connecticut will be going for its third straight NCAA title and Auriemma his 10th, which would tie him with UCLA’s John Wooden for the most NCAA Division I basketball titles.

“I’m just glad we played the earlier game so I can get a little rest,” McGraw joked. “I can’t believe that we’re here.”

Neither can most of the Amalie Arena crowd, the Gamecocks and their coach Dawn Staley, who saw their season end at 34-3.

“I feel that our players did what they had to do, put themselves in the position to win the game,” said Staley, a Hall of Fame player at Virginia, internationally and in the WNBA. “Unfortunately for us, it came down to them making a play which they needed to make and we didn’t.”

After Cable, who had no points and came from nowhere behind South Carolina’s tall frontline to grab the 10th offensive rebound of the game for the Irish and put in a off-balance six-footer to regain the lead for Notre Dame, Staley called a timeout with 13.9 remaining in regulation and decided to put the ball in All-American Tiffany Mitchell’s hands.

“We talked about that they would set a screen for her … and that we would need a lot of help, and she was probably going to take the last shot,” McGraw said.

Mitchell, who was hounded all night by Loyd, Cable and Huffman, dribbled around to look for a shot and then dribbled herself up against the sideline where Huffman blocked a pass which came back to her. She shot an errant 3-pointer that hit the top of the backboard as time expired, allowing Notre Dame to survive for one last game of the 2014-15 season.

There were plenty of heroes for the Irish. Loyd was asked to shoulder a lot of the load and came through with a game-high 22 points despite a 9-of-24 shooting night, the result of being hounded by Mitchell and fellow guard Olivia Gaines. Twelve of those points came in the second half when Loyd spent time running things on the floor as Allen sat out foul trouble and Michaela Mabrey got a breather. Loyd also finished with five rebounds, three assists and a steal.

“You know, it’s a blessing,” Loyd said. “This team is so young and seeing the younger kids get so excited and run on the court. You know we are just glad we have the opportunity to continue the season.”

Cable’s basket, her only one of the night, gave the Irish bench its fifth and sixth points of the night. South Carolina’s bench, meanwhile, totaled 39.

“Nobody boxed Maddie Cable out and she saw a bunny,” Loyd said.

Turner was next with 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting and had eight rebounds and three blocks. Sophomore Taya Reimer, Turner’s helper in the frontcourt, had 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting, six rebounds, four assists and three blocks. Mabrey contributed five points, but had a team-high five points and three steals.

“I’m so happy my teammates had my back,” said Allen, who was 0-of-5 while hounded by Khadijah Sessions and Gaines.

For South Carolina, 6-5 freshman A’ja Wilson had 20 points and nine rebounds, and 6-4 sophomore Alaina Coates had 12 points with nine boards. Mitchell managed just 11 points on 5-of-11 shooting as Notre Dame tried a variety of defenses to throw her off her game. Aleighsa Welch had 10 points and 14 points for the Gamecocks, who shot 43.1 percent (28 of 65) from the field and outrebounded Notre Dame 45-37, including 16-10 on the offensive boards. But South Carolina also hurt its chances to win going just seven of 16 from the charity stripe, a 43.8-percent effort. Notre Dame made 12 of 14 (85.7 percent).

Notre Dame took a 32-28 lead into the locker room at halftime. The Irish had 10 points each from Loyd and their two frontcourt regulars Turner and Reimer.

Notre Dame had a 12-point lead early, 17-5, but South Carolina cut the lead back to one, 25-24, with 3:27 remaining before Loyd scored five points and Reimer took a feed from Mabrey to give Notre Dame a late 32-24 lead.South Carolina tied the game at 36-all on Mitchell’s drive at 18:25 and had a chance to take the lead after Reimer fouled Coates.

But Coates missed both and Notre Dame went on a 7-0 run, started by Loyd’s three-point play after she hit a short jumper over Mitchell and was fouled. The Irish eventually got the lead back to 12 on a basket by freshman Kathryn Westbeld to take a 64-52 lead with 7:51 remaining but South Carolina followed with a 13-0 run over the next 7:35 before Cable’s rebound basket overcame South Carolina’s only lead of the night at the end.

“I guess it was a good time to get my two points for the game,” Cable said.

You think?

• NOTRE DAME 66, SOUTH CAROLINA 65

At Amalie Arena, Tampa, Fla.

SOUTH CAROLINA (65): Elem Ibiam 0-2 0-0 0, Aleighsa Welch 5-11 0-2 10, Asia Dozier 0-1 0-0 0, Khadijah Sessions 2-5 0-0 5, Tiffany Mitchell 5-11 0-0 11, A’ja Wilson 8-11 4-5 20, Alaina Coates 6-9 0-0 12, Bianca Cuevas 1-8 2-2 4, Tina Roy 1-5 0-0 2, Olivia Gaines 0-2 1-2 1, TOTALS 28-65 7-16 65.

NOTRE DAME (66): Brianna Turner 6-13 5-7 17, Taya Reimer 7-10 2-2 16, Lindsay Allen 0-5 0-0 0, Michaela Mabrey 1-5 2-2 5, Jewell Loyd 9-24 3-3 22, Madison Cable 1-4 0-0 2, Kathryn Westbeld 2-3 0-0 4, Hannah Huffman 0-0 0-0 0, TOTALS 26-64 12-14 66.

Halftime: Notre Dame 32, South Carolina 28.

Shooting: South Carolina 28 of 65 for 43.1 percent; Notre Dame 26 of 64 for 40.6 percent. 3-point shooting: South Carolina 2 of 12 (Sessions 1-2, Mitchell 1-4, Dozier 0-1, Cuevas 0-1, Gaines 0-1, Roy 0-3) for 16.7 percent; Notre Dame 2 of 5 (Loyd 1-1, Mabrey 1-2, Allen 0-1, Cable 0-1) for 40.0 percent. Free-throw shooting: South Carolina 7 of 16 for 43.8 percent; Notre Dame 12 of 14 for 85.7 percent. Rebounds: South Carolina 45 (Welch 14, Wilson 9, Coates 9); Notre Dame 37 (Turner 8, Reimer 6, Westbeld 6, Loyd 5). Assists: South Carolina 13 (Cuevas 3, Welch 2, Sessions 2, Wilson 2, Roy 2); Notre Dame 16 (Mabrey 5, Reimer 4, Allen 3, Loyd 3). Turnovers: South Carolina 13 (Cuevas 3, Gaines 2, Wilson 2, Coates 2); Notre Dame 10 (Loyd 3, Reimer 2, Allen 2, Westbeld 2). Assist-to-turnover ratio: South Carolina 1.00; Notre Dame 1.60. Blocked shots: South Carolina 6 (Wilson 4, Coates 2); Notre Dame 6 (Turner 3, Reimer 3). Steals: South Carolina 7 (Welch 2, Sessions 2); Notre Dame 7 (Mabrey 3). Total fouls (fouled out): South Carolina 13 (none); Notre Dame 17 (Allen, Turner). Technicals: None.

Officials: Lisa Mattingly, Felicia Grinter, Bryan Brunette.

Records: South Carolina 34-3, Notre Dame 36-2.

Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd (32) drives by South Carolina's Tina Roy (23) during the NCAA Women's Final Four basketball game on Sunday, April 5, 2015, inside Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN via FTP