SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Returning home to host the Sweet 16 after picking up two opening round wins in Toledo, the top-seeded Notre Dame’s women’s basketball team fed off a partisan crowd, starting strong in its regional semifinal game with Oklahoma State on Saturday afternoon at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Ind.
Natalie Achonwa registered 23 points, Jewell Loyd 20 and Kayla McBride 18 as the Fighting Irish (35-0) rolled to an 89-72 victory over fifth-seeded Oklahoma State.
Coach Muffet McGraw’s squad advances to Monday night’s 7:30 p.m. EDT regional final against Baylor (32-4), a 90-72 winner over Kentucky in Saturday’s first game.
Coach Jim Littell’s Cowgirls bow out of the tournament with a 25-9 season record and their Sweet 16 appearance since 2008.
“Notre Dame is very deserving of their ranking,” Littell said. “They have every piece of the puzzle. They’ve got athletes and they’ve got shooters. They have players that understand the game and they are very efficient in what they do. After the first five-to-seven minutes, I thought our kids played even with them.”
Perhaps, but Notre Dame started out fast, jumping out to a 14-0 lead just three-and-a-half minutes into the game. It was a hole the Cowgirls could just not dig their way out of.
“I thought the crowd set the tone early,” McGraw said. “There was no question when we came out to see the Sea of Green that was a phenomenal atmosphere for a game. I thought the roof might come off, the crowd was so loud at times.”
Littell said Notre Dame’s fast start put his team on its heels.
“It just seemed like we were a step behind them the first five or six minutes,” he said. “We had two people back in transition and they were blowing by us. We haven’t been on this stage and sometimes you’ve got to live it and go through it to really understand it. Sometimes when you are a little tense or a little awestruck, it kind of slows you down a little bit.”
Achonwa had 15 points in the first half and Loyd 14 to lead the Fighting Irish to 49-35 halftime advantage.
“When you have great players and scorers like Jewell Loyd and Kayla McBride, you have some of the best players in the country on your team, the defenses focus on them a little bit more,” Achonwa said. “The ability that they have to pass and share the ball is why we are so successful. I was just trying to give the team energy and contribute any way I can. When they’re focusing on the other players, it is easier for me to get a bucket down the middle.”
Loyd finished with a game-high 12 rebounds to go with her 20 points, for the double-double.
“Right from the get-go, she was really looking to get on the boards and start the break,” McGraw said. “She is such a good rebounder. We are never surprised when she gets a double-double. We think she is capable of that every day.”
Tiffany Bias had17 points, LaShawn Jones 16 and Brittany Atkins 13 to lead the Cowgirls.
“[Bias] has been a leader for us since the first day she stepped on campus,” Littell said of Bias, who injured her ankle in OSU's 73-66 victory over fourth-seeded Purdue on Monday. “She has taken this program to new levels from being a [W]NIT team to a Sweet 16 team. And it falls on this young lady and what she has done over the last several years. There is no way that she wasn’t going to play in this game. I don’t know if I have ever met anyone in 37 years of coaching that gives more and expects more out of herself and is a better teammate.”
The season ends for Oklahoma State, a season where the Cowgirls learned what it would take to elevate the program to an elite level.
“We got beat by a better team,” Littell said. “We told our team afterwards, ‘This is what we are striving to be, this is how we are striving to build our program.’ Sometimes you’ve got to see what it is like. You’ve got to play the best to know what it takes and we’ll take this as a learning experience and hopefully our program will continue to grow by experiencing this situation.
“We finished third in the Big 12, which is arguably one of the best conferences in the country,” Littell said. “And to go to Purdue and win on their home court and to come in here and fight, I am very happy with our group.”
Now the Fighting Irish get a shot at the Baylor Bears, a team they have never beaten in four tries, in the Elite Eight.
“We’ve been a really good team so far,” McGraw said. “We do have a lot of scoring threats and versatility. When you have three players you count on every night, one of them is going to have a big night. I think that takes the pressure off the other two. I think we are a good team, but it remains to be seen if we are better than last year.”