NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Notre Dame advanced to the National Championship game for the third time in four years Sunday with a decisive 87-61 win over Maryland.
Kayla McBride lead the Irish with 28 points, Jewell Loyd chipped in 16 and Markisha Wright came off the bench for 12, in a game where Notre Dame mounted a lead midway through the first half and never looked back. They out-rebounded Maryland, 50-21, and held Terrrapin leading scorer and rebounder Alyssa Thomas to 14 points and six rebounds. The sixth rebound, however, allowed Thomas to finish her collegiate career as Maryland's all-time rebounding leader, male or female. Thomas had previously broken the school's career scoring records for both genders.
Coach Muffet McGraw attributed the win to defense.
“We thought the game would be won on the boards - I think it was,” McGraw said. “To hold them to four offensive rebounds for the game is an amazing accomplishment.”
The Irish posted the win without top rebounder and emotional team leader Natalie Achonwa, who tore her ACL in last week’s quarterfinal win against Baylor. Notre Dame was expected to struggle in her absence. But they had little trouble with Maryland, who was led by freshman center Brionna Jones with 16 points, while six of her teammates were held scoreless.
McBride, who put up 19 of her points in the first half, said the team came together after Achonwa’s injury.
“After losing Ace, it was emotional. Our sense of urgency just skyrocketed,” she said. “I think we’re more together, I think we’re more dependent on each other. We’re playing for Ace and it’s good to have her on the sideline.”
Achonwa, who was cheering the Irish on throughout the game, said she talked to her teammates beforehand.
“We talked about it before the game and it went beyond just me,” Achonwa said. “I told them, ‘You put me on your back. I need you to put each other on your backs,’ and everyone stepped up.”
The game was close early, with six lead changes in just under eight minutes. But two shots by McBride opened up a lead, which Notre Dame continued to build upon. A ten-point lead at 6:35 turned into a 48-31 advantage at halftime.
The Irish continued their assault to begin the second half, and bolstered their lead to 25 by the 11:31 mark and 27 with 1:41 to go.
Jones, who had scored 10 points in Maryland’s last four games, acknowledged that Notre Dame was the more aggressive team.
“They came out and they were ready to play. They threw that first punch and we never really punched back,” Jones said. “They just came out and wanted it more.”
Maryland coach Brenda Frese said the Irish set the tone from the beginning of the game.
“Obviously, we really struggled to be able to have an answer for Loyd and McBride,” Frese said. “And they showed their experience, I thought, throughout this game.”
Notre Dame will play Connecticut for the National Championship Tuesday. The Huskies, who beat Stanford in the other semifinal, have lost four of their last five games against the Irish, who have been one of the few teams to beat them in recent years.
Both Notre Dame and Connecticut are the only undefeated teams in Division I this season. They have not played one another this season, as the Big East Conference was restructured.