Jewell Loyd leads Irish to ACC crown

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- When is two points more than two points? When it's a basket that sends a figurative bolt of electricity through a team and its fans. And that was exactly what Jewell Loyd's alley-oop did in the second half of the ACC tournament title game.

The Fighting Irish are champions of their new league, and they will go into the NCAA tournament undefeated at 32-0. They execute offensively, are patient even when things aren't clicking as well (which is rare, but happens), and are very dependable on defense.

But ... they are also just really darn fun to watch.

Especially their jumping-jack sophomore Loyd, who led Notre Dame to a 69-53 victory over Duke in the ACC final Sunday at Greensboro Coliseum.

Notre Dame was impressive throughout the ACC regular season and during this tournament. Loyd had 26 points, while senior backcourt mate Kayla McBride scored 25.

"I thought Jewell and Kayla were just unstoppable," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "The second half, Jewell had a stretch where she took over and did so many great things."

Including the aforementioned alley-oop, which came just more than 5 minutes into the second half. Loyd said former Irish point guard Skylar Diggins was "the best" about setting her up for those crowd-pleasers. But Sunday, freshman Lindsay Allen delivered an alley-oop pass to Loyd that Diggins would have been proud of.

That basket made it 42-34 Notre Dame, and was part of a 21-4 Irish run to take control of the game in the opening 8 minutes of the second half. The score was tied at 28 at halftime, but the Irish finished it off very strong.

"It's fun, and I think it's good for women's basketball," Loyd said of her highlight-reel basket, then added with a grin, "Skylar has the headband; that's her thing. And the alley-oop is my thing. It's something that I think motivates our team; it gets us hyped.

"Today, it was a good pass, and I thought, 'I have to do this.' You could tell the Notre Dame crowd just came alive then. We needed some positive energy, and I think it helped change the game."

She's right, but the thing about both Loyd -- who was named ACC tournament MVP -- and Notre Dame as a whole is that they don't just do spectacular plays well. They handle the gritty, less-showy basics with aplomb, too.

And the McBride-Loyd combo has been doing this at an exceptionally high level all season.

"You would be hard-pressed to find a better pair," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said of the Irish backcourt duo. "I think McBride's season was player-of-the-year material. She was very consistent in leading her team.

"I think that's what separates them. They're athletic, very smart. They perform every single night. Players of that caliber seem to get driven by their success."

Duke, the No. 2 seed behind Notre Dame in the ACC tournament, really didn't play that badly. Especially on the interior, where Haley Peters and Elizabeth Williams combined for 35 points and 22 rebounds. But this was a game where the Blue Devils being without two point guards -- injured Chelsea Gray and Alexis Jones -- really hurt them. Duke had 20 turnovers, and leading scorer Tricia Liston -- who has had to take over a lot of point-guard responsibilities -- was 2-of-11 from the field for four points. Duke was 0-for-5 from behind the arc.

And guess who was the defender who was frustrating Liston most of the night? Loyd, who takes great pride in her defense.

"I love guarding any team's best player," Loyd said. "Tricia and I actually played against each other in high school [in the Chicago area], and I know how good she is. I was motivated for today. And I think my defense pushes my offense. To get a key stop, and then make the other team pay on the other end."

Duke has lost three times now this season to Notre Dame -- by 21, 11 and 16 points -- and fell to No. 1-ranked UConn in a nonconference game in December by 22 points. McCallie thinks Duke's "body of work" should still be very impressive to the NCAA selection committee. Duke will be a host site for early-round games.

As for the Irish, they know they're an NCAA No. 1 seed, and they will be hosting a regional at home -- provided they aren't victim to a monumental upset in the early rounds. McGraw has been avoiding any talk of "perfection" or looking down the road at a potential epic NCAA tournament matchup with UConn, which plays in the American Athletic Conference tournament final Monday against Louisville.

"I don't think they will put us together in the first round," McGraw wisecracked when asked about UConn. "I think we'll be pretty focused on our [first-round] opponent, whoever that turns out to be."

McGraw said she was nervous at times this season with the Irish navigating a new conference, but that it was a "good" kind of nerves that energized her and her team. And they enjoyed their time in Greensboro.

The Irish were used to trekking to the Big East tournament in Hartford, Conn., where they were always the bad guys against the beloved Huskies.

Here in north central North Carolina, there is enough diversity among the various ACC fan bases that no one team is the overwhelming favorite the way UConn was in Hartford. So even though the Irish were playing North Carolina teams in the semis (NC State) and final, they didn't feel like the whole arena was against them.

Then again, it likely wouldn't have mattered if much of Raleigh-Durham had showed up here, because Notre Dame is not a team to get rattled. By anything.

"We don't settle," Loyd said. "It starts in practice; there's always something to improve on. We find problems, and try to fix them. We don't think about being undefeated; we're just trying to get better."