NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Throw out that undefeated record. Ignore the staggering run of lopsided victories, the two healthy All-Americans.
The Notre Dame women’s basketball team talked as though outside opinions are against the team entering today’s Final Four clash with Maryland.
To the top-seeded Irish, riding a 36-0 record and championship aspirations into the Music City, the loss of senior star Natalie Achonwa changes their standing.
It gives us a chance to play that underdog role we’ve done so well in, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said.
Underdog? A national powerhouse, making its fourth straight trip to the Final Four?
You bet, said senior guard Kayla McBride. From where she stands, believers were already few and far between, and the knee injury Achonwa suffered in the last game let people count out the Atlantic Coast Conference champions.
People counted us out when Skylar (Diggins) left, McBride said. It’s not anything new to me. Now we’ve adapted to the underdog role, again. It’s something I’ve had to deal with since I’ve been at Notre Dame.
I think we play better as an underdog.
Maryland (28-6) might say the same. Working as a No. 4 seed, the Terrapins won the Louisville Regional, stunning No. 1 seed Tennessee in the Sweet 16 and then No. 3 seed Louisville in the Elite Eight.
Maryland coach Brenda Frese laughs off any suggestion that her team is some sort of Goliath to Notre Dame’s David.
You can’t play that card, Frese said. Notre Dame’s been to four straight Final Fours. You’re not an underdog.
Frese wants that mantle for her own team. Oddsmakers are on her side, as they designated Notre Dame a 10-point favorite.
Everybody’s still picking them, Frese said. There’s no way they can be the underdog. They can try.
One reason to think the Terps have an edge is that they played Notre Dame closer than any team this season. In the lone meeting of the ACC slate, the Irish won 87-83 at Maryland on Jan. 27.
Notre Dame blew a 22-point lead that night, with McGraw saying the Irish completely lost their poise, and had to rally back.
McBride, who had 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting, nailed a jumper with 11 seconds left that provided the final margin.
As Achonwa and McBride battled foul trouble, Jewell Loyd dominated, finishing with 31 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
Even though she prefers to attack in other ways, Loyd had success backing Maryland defenders into the post.
Encouraging is that Notre Dame led 47-35 at halftime despite Achonwa going scoreless in three minutes.
She finished with only seven points in 21 minutes, and the Irish, who shot 59 percent, overcame the Terrapins’ 50 points in the paint.
Loyd and McBride – honorees Saturday to the WBCA Coaches’ All-America team – will be asked to create a lot of offense in the absence of Achonwa, who was averaging 20.5 points and 9.8 rebounds in the tournament.
I don’t think it’s necessarily a challenge, Loyd said. The Final Four is about crucial games, crucial moments. You need to stay together.
The Irish rolled through the early rounds, outclassing Robert Morris and outlasting Arizona State, hitting Oklahoma State early and punishing Baylor late.
Underdog or not, they are far from just happy to be here.
It’s a business trip, McGraw said. We have a lot of work to do. We’re playing on, Win one for the Gipper!’ We know we can’t get a national championship until you win the first game.