NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Kayla McBride sprinted off the floor for the final time in a Notre Dame uniform, darting full speed through a tunnel, away from the confetti, away from the Connecticut celebration, toward a place where she could dry her eyes.
“She’s the heart and soul of our team,” said Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw, fighting back tears of her own after a 79-58 loss to UConn in the NCAA women’s tournament title game Tuesday night.
“You just want to give her a hug and wish she could stay forever.”
McBride was 40 minutes from holding a coveted trophy, so close, and yet, according to the scoreboard, never that close at all. The Irish were routed in a matchup of unbeaten teams.
“To go out like that hurts,” said McBride, a senior who went to the Final Four every year. “There’s no way they’re 20 points better than us. Absolutely not. We just didn’t play well. We’re good, too.”
It was a devastating way for Notre Dame to suffer its only loss of the season. So talented, so used to slicing up opponents, the Irish ran into a juggernaut greater than themselves.
“I don’t know that they’ve ever played better than they did tonight,” McGraw said. “I thought we were playing the Miami Heat for a while. Just that good. They were just missing LeBron.”
On one side, despair. On the other, euphoria.
When Stefanie Dolson powered home a layup while being fouled with 14:13 to play, she clinched her fists, let out a roar and bumped shoulders with teammates.
UConn was headed to its record-setting ninth championship.
Notre Dame’s Natalie Achonwa stood up emotionless from the bench as Dolson’s shot went in. It was all she could do in that black knee brace.
“It’s difficult to watch the season end like that when you’re injured,” said Achonwa, an All-American senior. “At the end of the day, we had a great year.”
Achonwa consoled McBride, telling her she was the best player in America and to hold her head high.
“We did everything in our four years,” Achonwa said. “I wouldn’t trade these four years for anything. We made noise at Notre Dame.”
Just not on Tuesday.
Dolson’s three-point play pushed the Huskies in front 60-42, and they finished their season 40-0, the fifth unbeaten year in school history.
Notre Dame (37-1) fell behind 22-8 less than nine minutes into the game and could only claw back within five before UConn broke it open again.
McBride had 21 points and five rebounds. Jewell Loyd added 13 points and six rebounds, and Michaela Mabrey scored 10.
The Huskies defended last season’s title and surpassed Tennessee’s eight for the most ever.
Before Dolson’s tough finish and show of emotion made clear what the outcome would be, Brenna Stewart’s left-handed layup put the Huskies up 57-42 with 15 minutes left.
The Irish trailed by at least 17 the rest of the way, making for an anticlimactic finish to a showdown fans had waited three months for.
Since Notre Dame won its only championship in 2001, the Irish have been back to the title game three times – and lost all three.
Achonwa proved irreplaceable, at least against the bigger Huskies, who dominated in the paint. UConn had 22 offensive rebounds and won the glass 54-31 overall.
If there was any upside to the lopsided score, it at least kept the Irish from wondering, “What if,” about Achonwa’s absence.
“We were so overmatched tonight,” McGraw said, “that not much would have mattered.”