Notre Dame's Loyd has UConn in sights

Jewell Loyd has a score to settle with Connecticut, the team that always seems to stand in Notre Dame’s way to a national championship.

This season, the top-ranked Huskies dealt No. 2 Notre Dame one of its two losses, 76-58, on Dec. 6 in South Bend, as part of the 2014 Women’s Jimmy V Classic, despite Loyd’s 31 points in 38 minutes.

The 5-foot-10 junior guard, recently named espnW's National Player of the Year, would love to return the favor. She’d like to make sure the Fighting Irish get in the Huskies’ way in the NCAAs and derail them in their quest for their second three-peat in program history. It would be sweet revenge for Loyd, who has seen both of her collegiate postseasons end at the hands of the Huskies, including in last year’s championship game.

While she doesn’t make a habit of looking ahead, Loyd, the ACC Women’s Basketball Player of the Year, doesn’t mind talking about the event during which she’ll get at least one more shot at her nemesis: the 2015 Women’s Jimmy V Classic, which will be in December (date: TBD).

“I think it’s bigger than basketball,” said Loyd, a Lincolnwood, Ill., native. “You’re playing for a great cause. You’re playing to honor Jimmy V. You want to give back. So it’s more meaningful to play a game for that than just playing against UConn.”

Loyd gets more motivated when playing for causes like the Jimmy V Foundation or Play 4Kay, games dedicated to the memory of the late Kay Yow, who like Valvano was a coaching legend at NC State whose life was cut short after a long, courageous fight with cancer.

Those games are personal to Loyd, as breast cancer contributed to her grandmother’s passing.

“I never had a chance to meet her so it means a lot to me,” Loyd said. In a Play 4Kay game at Georgia Tech, Loyd dropped 31 points, 23 in the second half, in the Irish’s 71-61 win Feb. 19. “I’m playing for her and I’m playing for my mother as well, just in memory of my grandmother. So it means a lot to me for my grandmother.”

Loyd has been motivated in 2014-15 to continue Notre Dame’s dominance in the ACC. She led the Irish to a 28-2 regular-season record (15-1 ACC). Through two seasons, the Irish are 35-1 in ACC play, and a perfect two-for-two in ACC regular-season championships. But Loyd wasn’t satisfied with that. She led Notre Dame to a second straight conference tournament championship, earning her second straight tournament MVP. She paced the Irish in scoring in all three games, averaging 17.3 ppg, while also pulling down 7.3 rebounds.

For the second straight season Notre Dame knocked out Duke, this time 55-49 in the semifinals. The Blue Devils had won three of the previous four tournaments before the Fighting Irish joined the ACC.

Loyd topped her 2014 performance, when, as a sophomore, she was the team’s leading scorer (18.6 ppg) and a first team All-Tournament selection. She was part of a backcourt, along with Kayla McBride, that got the Fighting Irish all the way to the NCAA tournament championship game before running out of gas against Connecticut.

With McBride gone this season, Loyd has taken her game to another level, setting career highs for scoring (an ACC-leading 20.7 ppg), assists (3.2 apg, eighth) and free throw percentage (83.6, fourth). She is only the third Notre Dame player to average north of 20.0 ppg for a season, slightly ahead of Katryna Gaither’s school record of 20.4 ppg set in 1996-97 (Loyd enters the NCAAs at 20.5 ppg). Her 676 points so far this season rank fourth in school history and put her well within reach of her 687 points scored last season, which rank third all-time. She’s seventh all-time in points scored (1,813) and rising.

Stepping up her game was as much in response to the level of competition the ACC presents.

“The talent level is really high. Everyone plays like they’re champions,” said Loyd, who tied another school single-season record by earning four Player of the Week awards — Jacqueline Batteast set the record in 2004-05, when Notre Dame played in the Big East. “That’s how you want to play. I think we have the best league. Everyone is so competitive, so athletic. We can’t ever take a night off.”

Rest assured that won’t happen as long as Jewell Loyd is around and UConn awaits.