Loyd leads Notre Dame to Nashville

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame's entire season has been an exercise in proving there is life without a familiar face on the court.

So why not make the final step in getting back to the Final Four about exactly the same thing.

No Skylar Diggins was no problem for Notre Dame as it piled up 35 consecutive wins to reach a regional final.

No Kayla McBride for most of the first half of Monday's 88-69 victory over Baylor? No problem for the Fighting Irish. Not with Natalie Achonwa going to work. Not with Jewell Loyd stepping squarely into the spotlight she has auditioned for all season with 30 points.

No Achonwa for much of the second half? That will be a problem if it lingers beyond Monday night, but it wasn't enough to save the nets after this game. Not with Loyd around. Not with Ariel Braker making plays and Lindsay Allen avoiding mistakes.

We ponder what the Fighting Irish are not at our own peril. Because they continue to prove that what they are is pretty special.

"When Skylar came in, I think people expected that we would be in the Final Four," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "And then when Skylar graduated, I don't think anyone expected that we'd be back in the Final Four. So I think it says a lot about this team, the mental toughness and the grit, that they got together and had this unbelievable season."

That season seemed like it might be in serious trouble when a referee's whistle blew, in what would prove to be a recurring theme, and McBride picked up her second offensive foul in the game's first four minutes. As much as the Fighting Irish have a triumvirate of primary scorers in McBride, Loyd and Achonwa, it's the senior guard from Erie, Pa., who time and again has come up with her best performances in the team's biggest games this season.

Now Baylor had Odyssey Sims and a four-point lead in front of a restless crowd that suddenly included McBride in a front-row seat next to Notre Dame's assistant coaches.

Enter Loyd. In the span of a little more than four minutes, Notre Dame outscored Baylor 14-0 and took a 31-21 lead. The lead grew to as many as 13 points late in the half and shrank to as few as five points on multiple occasions in the second, but Baylor never got within a single possession the rest of the night. Achonwa got the run started, but Loyd scored eight points in that stretch. She started it with a putback, then completed a three-point play in traffic that gave the team the lead and brought the crowd to its feet. Moments later, she drove left on Sims, stopped on a dime and put up a step-back jumper that drew a foul on the lunging Sims.

McBride called the halftime lead the difference in the game, and Loyd largely provided it.

"We really needed her to take control when Kayla got the two quick fouls," McGraw said. "A big part of our game plan was going inside to Ace, and then Jewell was able to just get some shots. She made some long shots -- we were trying to get her to go to the basket a little bit more, but she really carried us in the first half."

Just as she did in the closest call Notre Dame had all season. Back on Jan. 27 at Maryland, with Achonwa and McBride again forced to the bench with early foul trouble, Loyd put the team on her back and scored 20 points in the first half. She went toe-to-toe and then some with Alyssa Thomas that night, just as she did this night against Sims.

"I think her preparation, her light bulb that clicks on is before the game starts," Notre Dame assistant coach Niele Ivey said. "I don't know what the word is -- besides her being amazing -- but she knows when she has to be a scorer for us. She's very comfortable in that role. I feel like she does a really good job of preparing herself before to be in a big game like this."

McGraw said Purcell Pavilion and the sellout crowd within was as loud as she could remember Monday night. From not even 10 feet away, it was at times impossible to hear Notre Dame defenders whose facial contortions made it clear they were screaming as they called out the screens Baylor players set for Sims on the perimeter.

This wasn't an environment for the meek of heart, regardless of their years. This wasn't a game you prepared for Sunday afternoon. You got ready for this one a long time ago.

There weren't any roars of approval when McBride and Loyd used to work out together in the practice gym the summer before Loyd's freshman year, just the squeak of sneakers on wood, the echo of a bouncing ball, and the labored breathing of two players competing in shooting contests or testing each other in games of one-on-one. They were getting ready for a season in which both would still be understudies to Diggins, but they were also getting ready for a night like Monday.

"She was just so athletic, and she wanted to get better," McBride recalled. "That was something that stood out to me. As a freshman, your work ethic, you don't really know what it's going to be like -- maybe she thinks she's good or whatever. But she was willing to work hard. She knew she could do more. She knew she could be great."

In some ways, no matter the demands on Loyd to produce, it's almost easier for her to play the role she fills this season than the one she filled a season ago. She was great as a freshman, earning national honors as the best newcomer in the country, but she was a complementary piece. That is not her natural mindset.

In the moments before the start of the second half, as players and referees waited for the all-clear from television, Loyd stood by herself in a corner of the court and stared off in the distance. Just before the ball was put in play, Achonwa caught her eye from the other side of the court and made a hand gesture. Both grinned for a brief second.

"We just saw that I had a smaller guard on me," Loyd recounted in reference to Baylor's Niya Johnson. "So we were just looking at each other like, 'Hey, it's go-time,' kind of looking at each other like, 'They can't guard us; it's now or never.' We just looked at each other, and that's kind of the first time we ever did that."

That it was Achonwa on the other end of the silent communication is no surprise. She is the one who always knows what to say, or in this case, signal. She was a force in the post in the first half, pursuing rebounds, altering shots and proving far too quick for inexperienced defenders. She was also just a force in the arena, exhorting fans to get on their feet and make some noise or making sure Loyd was ready to roll. So of course she refused help when she limped to the locker room after sustaining an apparent knee injury in the closing minutes -- limped off the court only after turning to her teammates and screaming at them to protect their house and finish the job.

"She means so much to us," Ivey said. "She is our post player, she is our leader. She is literally the smartest player on the team. Not taking anything away from Lindsay Allen, but Ace is basically a point guard in a post body. She's very cerebral. She's the one who knows where everybody is supposed to be. ... She's the one who will tell people and has no filter on what needs to be said."

To a person, Notre Dame players feigned certainty that Achonwa will be with them on the court in Nashville, although it felt as if they were trying to convince themselves as much as those asking questions without answers. McGraw offered only the news that the senior will have an MRI on Tuesday.

Notre Dame's coach said she wanted to see a replay of the play that led to the injury. "It looked like a rough play," McGraw said. It certainly wasn't the only question about the officiating on a night that saw more than 40 total fouls and double-digit offensive fouls. Notre Dame got hit hard with the early fouls on McBride and the second-half woes for Achonwa, but Baylor had it at least as bad as it sent the Fighting Irish to the free throw line 33 times.

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, who served a one-game suspension in Baylor's first-round win as a result of critical comments she made about the officiating in her team's Sweet 16 loss a season ago, wouldn't comment on the same topic Monday. But at least on arguably the two biggest momentum-swinging calls -- Mulkey's technical after an offensive foul was whistled on Sims in front of the Baylor bench, and the intentional foul on Sims when she wrapped both arms around Notre Dame's Allen on a breakaway after the Baylor star had turned over the ball -- it would have been difficult to argue the merits.

It was an unfortunate element on a night when Sims fought valiantly to prolong her career, Loyd made her mark and both teams played with a frantic energy, but it cut both ways.

"It was really hard to get the rhythm going with fouls, and a lot of offensive fouls both ways," McGraw said. "They have to call the game like they see it, and they wanted to keep it in check, but for us, we need a little bit more of a flow. Especially when Ace is out and K-Mac is out. So really for us, our rhythm was a little suspect anyway."

So here we are one more time, wondering if Notre Dame can prosper without one of its most important players.

But wondering it as the Irish get ready for their fourth consecutive Final Four.