After missing the weekend's game against Miami following a knee injury suffered against Tennessee, Notre Dame (19-0, 6-0) welcomed their leading scorer, sophomore Jewell Loyd, back into the starting lineup to take on the Maryland Terrapins (16-3, 4-2). In a tough road environment against the 8th-ranked Terrapins, the Irish needed every one of Loyd's game-high 31 points to hold off a furious comeback attempt.
But for all of Loyd's heroics, it was Kayla McBride who closed this one out, burying a deep two-point jumper to give Notre Dame a four-point lead with just under 15 seconds left, all but finishing Maryland on a night when they refused to quit.
The Irish led by as many as 22 points in the first half, taking advantage of a cold start by All-American Alyssa Thomas. But the Terrapins, led by Thomas, battled back to within 12 by halftime and evened up the score right after the under-12 minute timeout in the second half. With the game nodded at 60 apiece, the remaining 11 minutes was a can't-miss title bout, an impressive back-and-forth display of offensive execution and pure guts by both sides.
Notre Dame even trailed briefly late by a 64-63 score, but a quick 7-0 run gave the Irish a lead that they did not relinquish, though it was often in doubt. They showed plenty of determination on a night when they could have packed it in after giving up a huge lead on the road.
For their part, Maryland was led by Alyssa Thomas with 29 points and 12 boards, good for her NCAA-best 17th double-double. She combined with Alicia DeVaughn (16 pts, 7-10 fg) to dominate the paint for much of the second half. Though the Terps were outshot in every way, they stayed in this one by winning the turnover battle and destroying Notre Dame with second-chance points.
Though the Irish failed to keep Thomas and DeVaughn out of the paint or off the offensive glass, they put on quite an offensive show themselves. Led by Loyd's 31 and McBride's 20, they also got a major contribution off the bench from Michaela Mabrey (13 pts), the only other Irish player to score in double-digits.
Notre Dame can certainly find reasons to be upset with this one, despite gaining the tough road win. Head coach Muffett McGraw did not hide her displeasure following the game, "If it's possible to be disappointed after a win, I'd say that's how I'm feeling right now." She certainly has plenty of turnovers, lackadaisical defensive rebounding, and inexcusable foul trouble on tape to show her team following this high-scoring affair.
But for a team that has been relatively untested this season, especially compared to years past, showing its mettle in a raucous road environment against a top-ranked team and coming away with a victory can do wonders come March. For a team that may have taken for granted former teammate Skylar Diggins' ability to lead and carry them in tough moments, there is no more questioning the leadership on this roster. The duo of Jewell Loyd and Kayla McBride is as good a backcourt as there is in the nation and look ready to lead this team to another Final Four.
Notre Dame will take on Virginia Tech this Thursday night in South Bend before the big showdown Sunday afternoon in Durham. The 2nd-ranked Irish will visit the 3rd-ranked Duke Blue Devils in a battle for ACC supremacy. Tune into ESPN at 2pm EST on Sunday for the biggest game of the season so far for McGraw's squad. It's the perfect Super Bowl pregame show.