The Notre Dame Fighting Irish (36-0) senior trio of Natalie Achonwa, Ariel Braker, and Kayla McBride was already the winningest class in program history, but after Monday night's victory over the Baylor Bears (32-5), they added another line to their impressive resume. The seniors had reached the Final Four in each of their four seasons, something that had only been done five times previously in women's basketball history.
Those seniors, however, were led by a sophomore on Monday night, as Jewell Loyd hit the 30 point mark for the second time this season. Loyd went toe-to-toe with All-American Odyssey Sims when her senior teammates, battling foul trouble, absolutely needed her to shine.
The game was seldom in doubt after an Irish run late in the first half pushed their lead to 12 by the break. Loyd led the way with 21 before halftime, followed by Achonwa and her first half double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Baylor was able to shrink the Irish lead to as few as four points in the second half, but a very balanced Notre Dame scoring attack allowed the Irish to keep the Bears at arm's length throughout most of the final minutes of the game. Two Kayla McBride free throws with just under 7 minutes left pushed the lead back to double-digits, and the Irish kept it that way for the remainder of the game.
McBride was hampered by foul trouble early and often in this one, limiting her to just 18 minutes of floor time in which she scored 11 points, well under her season average. But Loyd picked up the slack, finishing with 30, as did Achonwa, who tallied 19 and 15 points and boards, respectively. Ariel Braker added 10 points and 6 rebounds of her own on a perfect 4 of 4 shooting night.
Odyssey Sims was a one-women show for Baylor, scoring just under half of her team's points with 33. Though the Irish did little to stop her from scoring, they did force Sims into foul trouble, including a late intentional foul on Lindsay Allen, as well as 9 turnovers.
A bigger story may have emerged late in the game, which could have major implications for Notre Dame in next weekend's Final Four. As Natalie Achonwa drove in for a lay-up with just a few minutes left, she was fouled and landed awkwardly, falling to the floor screaming and clutching her left knee. She limped off under her own power, encouraging her teammates to "win this 'game'" (she didn't say game) and was able to come back out and celebrate the victory with her teammates without crutches or a brace.
It is hard to see the Irish winning the title without their major post presence and emotional leader, particularly against Connecticut in a potential final. Achonwa has been outstanding in the NCAA Tournament thus far, averaging over 20 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game, making her a legitimate candidate for Most Outstanding Player. Head coach Muffet McGraw and everyone at the basketball offices in the Purcell Pavilion must be waiting very impatiently for Tuesday's MRI results on that knee.
Notre Dame plays their national semifinal against the winner of Tuesday's game between the 3-seed (but should have been 1-seed) Louisville Cardinals and 4-seed Maryland Terrapins, the latter of whom played the toughest game against the Irish all season. The Connecticut Huskies, after winning Monday against Texas A&M, awaits the winner of Stanford and North Carolina. The Final Four tips off on Sunday night at 6:30pm on ESPN.