SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The new Associated Press Top 25 released Monday suggested neither Notre Dame nor Tennessee will be in attendance when the Final Four convenes in Tampa.
If there are four teams that can play better basketball than the sixth-ranked Fighting Irish and fifth-ranked Lady Vols played Monday in South Bend in front of a national television audience, especially for a stretch of scintillating can-you-top-this shot-making in the first half, college basketball is in for a heck of a show in April.
But if Jewell Loyd isn't part of that show, it will be our loss.
The person unlucky enough to spend most of the night trying to stop Loyd -- perhaps not with as much help as she or her coach would have liked -- put it best after the Notre Dame All-American scored 34 points in her team's 88-77 win.
"You want to make them be the great player that they are every possession," Tennessee guard Andraya Carter said. "And she did that most possessions of this game."
She does that most possessions of most games, especially the games that matter the most. Loyd was coming off a rare quiet line in a meaningful game, having ceded the spotlight to Brianna Turner in a win four days earlier at North Carolina (a game, she admitted Monday, for which she was under the weather). But even with that eight-point outing in the mix, Loyd left Purcell Pavilion after the game against Tennessee averaging 27.7 points in seven games against ranked teams. Throw out the game in Chapel Hill, and it's 31 points per game against ranked foes.
To borrow a line from a coach who has had his share of moments with each of these teams as the foil, the difference Monday night was that the Fighting Irish had Loyd and Tennessee didn't. She scored 18 points in the first half. She scored on pull-up jumpers when the pull-up and the shot were one explosively fluid motion. She scored on 3-pointers. She scored on drives where she hovered on the balls of her feet at the top of the key and, like a skier picking the right line, burst through the lane to finish at the basket. She scored on the final act of the first half, rebounding a Lindsay Allen 30-foot heave with three seconds left and scoring without ever coming back down to terra firma.
And she scored those last two points minutes after she lay nearly motionless on the court after a collision. Pressed on what exactly she hit when she crashed to the court, Loyd somewhat sheepishly admitted it was her, uh, posterior.
"It was my butt," Loyd noted.
There isn't much about her that isn't direct.
Loyd was Loyd, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said, almost as an afterthought in running through the positives.
"She's so fun to watch and so hard to guard," McGraw said. "She can jump over a smaller guard that's defending her. She can take them to the block. She was using the screens well tonight. But she's a great passer, too, so she can hit the roll when she and Brianna [Turner] were in the pick-and-roll.
"She's, I think, the best player in the country She's just so athletic. She can score from so many different areas. Her shot was really on today, and that makes it fun to watch."
Importantly for Notre Dame, her teammates didn't add to the more than 9,000 people just there for the show.
Loyd carried the team in the first half, and she didn't exactly vanish with 16 points in the second half (including, as a consummate showwoman must, the free throws at the end that triggered a promotion in which fans won free burgers). But she had help.
Loyd's early brilliance disguised two issues that still face the Fighting Irish: rebounding and a shot-making supporting cast beyond Turner. Outrebounded by five in the first half, highlighting an area of extreme displeasure for McGraw all season, Notre Dame nonetheless finished the game with a 36-34 advantage on the boards. No player was more responsible for that turnaround than Loyd -- no, wait, sorry, you just get used to typing that name. No player was more responsible for that than Taya Reimer, a player whose status on the team, a little more than a week earlier, wasn't even clear. The sophomore, who briefly took time away from the team to consider her future, totaled eight points and seven rebounds in the second half. And Allen, who might well need to be the third scoring option in games like this, scored 12 points in the second half in addition to running the team on the floor.
With a lead in single digits almost all night finally at 10 points late in the second half, Allen lobbed the ball toward Turner, who filled the right lane on a break. The freshman, who was a vital presence inside with five blocks, rose to the pass and finished with ease for a 12-point lead at 64-52. With the crowd at full volume, the Lady Vols had to take a timeout. They didn't capitulate, cutting the deficit to as few as six points in the closing minutes, but that alley-oop felt like the moment when the result become a foregone conclusion and Tennessee's efforts futile.
It was eerily reminiscent of a play almost four years earlier during the regional final in Dayton between the same two teams. In that game, also a back-and-forth affair for much of the first 30 minutes, Skylar Diggins raced down the court and lofted a lob toward Devereaux Peters and the tall, lanky forward scored with ease. It punctuated a surge for the Fighting Irish and extended their lead to 12 points, 60-48. It felt in that moment, too, like something turned.
That was the first time Notre Dame ever beat Tennessee. It was the moment Notre Dame in its current incarnation arrived, when it finally beat Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols and finally returned to the Final Four. Notre Dame no longer needs that kind of validation. But what it needed was a performance against a team like Tennessee that put the past two weeks, the loss at Miami and the Reimer situation, well and truly behind it. Nobody was talking about either Monday night. Reimer's comments on the subject -- happy to be with her team, etc. -- were an afterthought.
"She's, I think, the best player in the country She's just so athletic. She can score from so many different areas. Her shot was really on today, and that makes it fun to watch." Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw on Jewell Loyd
And yet for all of that, it was hard to walk into the South Bend night (an admittedly mild one by local standards, almost March-like) and feel that Tennessee somehow exited exposed or a fraud.
Since back-to-back losses against Chattanooga and Texas earlier this season in which it played at times as if defense was an elective not necessary for graduation, Tennessee had become a defensive juggernaut. Opponents, some marginal but some very good, didn't sniff 70 points against the Lady Vols. Most couldn't get to 60. That didn't happen Monday. Notre Dame not only rode Loyd but picked apart Tennessee at times. The message delivered in the locker room after Monday's game was clear, Bashaara Graves, Cierra Burdick and Carter all speaking about the folly of trading baskets and the importance of playing defense the way Tennessee prides itself on playing defense.
But a lot of teams don't look great on defense against Notre Dame, especially in South Bend. Tennessee stayed in the game for almost its entirety because it scored points. Even on a night when Isabelle Harrison couldn't get much to fall around the basket, Graves looked like the force she was as a freshman, Carter knocked down jumpers and Burdick hit big shots.
Force Tennessee to play offense to compete and it was doomed, conventional wisdom went. Well, it lost Monday, but it wasn't doomed. Hence a different mood than after the Texas loss.
"Oh God, night and day," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said of her feelings about her team after this game and the November loss against the Longhorns. "Texas game, we were uninspired and had low energy. It's night and day. I can't fault our effort; we played hard. And I tell them, 'You've got to fight.' We talked about that before the game, it's about fighting, it's about dictating, it's about giving effort. I'm not faulting us for effort. We had high energy. We just couldn't finish the deal."
Monday's game was the 25th meeting between the two schools, including one in each of the past five seasons. It is not Connecticut and Tennessee, which celebrated its own anniversary in absentia this past week. It is not even Connecticut and Notre Dame, which resumed this season but is itself forever altered as a result of conference realignment. It is a game for women's basketball fans but perhaps not one that will necessarily bring in scores of new fans on a Monday night in January. It is a big game and it played out like one. That's good for fans, and it's good for the teams.
"If we're going to play something outside our conference in the middle of our conference, we want to play somebody that's going to help us get better," Warlick said. "And I think that Notre Dame exposes some things that we need to get better at, like they did tonight. So we go back to work. I hope we continue to play in it.
"They're fun games, they're really fun games for us. They're a lot more fun when we win."
They're a lot more fun when you have Loyd.
Asked in the preseason how she would defend herself, Loyd sagely said she wouldn't. She wouldn't want to get embarrassed. The only person who ever had any luck shutting her down, she said, was her older brother Jarryd, a former college and professional player.
She said Monday he still might have been able to stop her, that she looked over at one point and saw him signal that the shot she just hit wouldn't have worked against him. A brother always.
But it's difficult to imagine anyone stopping Loyd the way she played on this night. A great player on every possession.
Let's hope we get to see her on the court in Tampa. And it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if it was in a rematch.