NASHVILLE, Tenn. – For the fourth time in school history, the Notre Dame women's basketball team will play for the national championship.
Led by Kayla McBride, the Irish (37-0) blew past Maryland on Sunday night with an 87-61 masterpiece in the first semifinal at the Women's Final Four. On Tuesday night at Bridgestone Arena, top-seeded Notre Dame will face the winner of a later game between No. 1 seed Connecticut and No. 2 seed Stanford.
The Irish won their only title in 2001.
This one will have to come short-handed, but Notre Dame might just have enough, after all.
Notre Dame wore warmups that had on the back “ACE,” written below the No. 11, to honor injured captain and All-American post player Natalie Achonwa. She watched from the bench in a lime green top and stood for huddles, offering plenty of words of advice and encouragement.
McBride, a senior like Achonwa, took over the game, scoring 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting in the first half to provide the Irish a 48-31 bulge as they returned to the dressing room. The second half was never competitive, with Notre Dame continuing to do everything that built the lead in the first place.
McBride, who has a tendency to rise to the occasion, finished with a game-high 28 points and seven rebounds. Sophomore Jewell Loyd tallied 16 points and nine boards for the Irish, who are playing in their fourth consecutive Final Four.
Markisha Wright, getting frontcourt minutes off the bench because of Taya Reimer's move to the starting lineup in place of Achonwa, received a rousing ovation from the green-clad fans upon her departure with 2 minutes remaining. Wright had 12 points and nine rebounds.
Lindsay Allen finished with nine points and five assists for the Irish, while Reimer also scored nine.
The Irish shot 51 percent from the field to Maryland's 41 percent. Notre Dame dominated the boards 50-21.
A 16-6 run midway through the opening period let Notre Dame pull away from the Terrapins (28-7).
McBride scored to make it 25-21, then she came up with a steal and finished a crafty layup through contact. After McBride's three-point play, Allen came through with one of her own to push the Irish in front 31-21, their first double-figure lead, with 6:35 left.
Notre Dame closed the half strong, with Madison Cable breaking open for a 3-pointer at the buzzer that surely demoralized the overwhelmed Terrapins. McBride scored and Reimer slipped to the basket before Cable's trey.
Rebounding was the emphasis all week of Irish coach Muffet McGraw, and it showed in Notre Dame's play. In the first half, the team in home white missed 17 shots and one live-ball free throw, and managed to secure 11 offensive rebounds on those 18 opportunities.
Loyd grabbed another offensive board on the first possession of the second half and put soft touch on a fallaway jumper. After a stop, McBride scored to make it 52-31, and the Irish never looked back.
The Terrapins never got closer than 17 the rest of the way.
Maryland had played Notre Dame so close in an 87-83 loss on Jan. 27, but the two games between Atlantic Coast Conference members could not have been more different.
A team that arrived at Nashville calling this a business trip pretty easily took care of business.
Now it all comes down to one final game – the ultimate winner-take-all – for the trophy McBride and Achonwa have chased so hard during their four years on campus.