SOUTH BEND – Natalie Achonwa waved her arms, yelling at the crowd to get loud and help push the Irish past their slow start.
Down 21-17 in the first half, top-seeded Notre Dame, spurred by its senior forward, surged on a 14-0 run and never looked back.
After an 88-69 victory over Baylor that clinched a fourth straight trip to the women’s Final Four, the emotions were admittedly bittersweet for the Irish because of a potentially serious knee injury Natalie Achonwa suffered with 4:51 remaining.
Achonwa, who had 19 points and 15 rebounds in yet another sensational performance, is scheduled for an MRI today.
Concern for one of their captains put a damper on the Irish’s celebration at Purcell Pavilion.
It sucked the air right out of the room, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. She’s the glue. She’s the mom that keeps us together. You’re on such a high and then that happens.
McGraw said it was a good sign that Achonwa walked to the locker room under her own power. Achonwa returned to the bench with about a minute left in the game. She walked awkwardly on a stiff right leg and received hugs from teammates on the bench.
Jewell Loyd, whose 30 points and five rebounds helped the Irish survive their most difficult test of the NCAA tournament, sounded almost defiant after the game, insisting Achonwa was fine.
I know Ace,’ said Loyd, named Most Outstanding Player of the Notre Dame Regional. She’ll be good.
On Thursday, the Irish leave for Nashville, Tenn., and the status of Achonwa is sure to be major storyline, one way or another.
Just as noteworthy, though, is the rise of a program that has filled the void left by a declining Tennessee program.
While Connecticut is still the gold standard in women’s basketball, Notre Dame can now lay claim to the fifth-most Final Four appearances after securing No. 6.
The Irish (36-0) are on a collision course with fellow unbeaten UConn, and players are not shy about their goal: winning Notre Dame’s second national title.
We want that ring, Loyd said.
The Irish had to get through the nation’s second-leading scorer – Odyssey Sims – first.
They hounded Sims into nine turnovers and 12-of-26 shooting, and although she finished with 33 points, six assists and five rebounds, Sims had to work awfully hard.
Just what the Irish wanted.
It was a team effort, Loyd said. I think we did a pretty good job at that. We wanted to make everything hard.
With Sims kept out of the lane in halfcourt sets, no other Bears player scored in double figures, and No. 2 seed Baylor (32-5) saw its powerful offense held to 34 percent shooting from the field.
Notre Dame connected on only 42 percent of its shots, far below the season norm, but got a much more balanced effort.
Kayla McBride finished with 11 points and five assists for the Irish, while Ariel Braker had 10 points and six rebounds.
And this Final Four?
This one’s better because we did it at home, McGraw said.
Four years ago, no one would have taken the odds on four in a row.
One in a million, McGraw said.