Perfect semi keeps perfect run alive

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- All appearances to the contrary Sunday night, it really isn't that difficult to beat Kayla McBride on a basketball court. All you have to do is convince her to play the game as a southpaw.

All right, it doesn't hurt if the person challenging her to do so also happens to be an ambidextrous All-American.

"To beat her, I shoot lefty," Notre Dame sophomore Jewell Loyd revealed of the ultracompetitive H-O-R-S-E games the two engage in from time to time. "She's not a great lefty shooter -- I mean, most people aren't ambidextrous, but I have that luxury of shooting lefty sometimes."

Maryland, unfortunately, had to face McBride when she used her right hand Sunday night. It didn't go so well.

And on a night when the Fighting Irish owned the boards to such a degree that they should get rent from Stanford and Connecticut for using them in the nightcap, the Terrapins weren't going to get any do-overs.

If a team is going to make a run at a perfection, it might as well play a perfect game. What Notre Dame did in dismantling Maryland 87-61 was as close as a team is likely to come at this stage of the season.

"We look at the players individually and say if everybody played well on the same night, imagine how good we would be," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "We were pretty darn close tonight."

McBride scored 28 points on 12-of-21 shooting and could have had more if needed in the second half.

McGraw said her team as a whole hasn't painted its masterpiece yet. One of the game's great masters, McBride nonetheless produced a piece of performance art worth admiring.

The senior and newly minted WBCA All-American also had seven rebounds, part of a team effort that saw the Irish beat the Terrapins 50-21 on the boards. It was the kind of advantage you would expect in an NCAA tournament first-round mismatch.

Come to think of it, Robert Morris lost the battle of the boards by only 23 rebounds in the first round against the Irish.

The game was a feast of midrange jumpers and hesitation dribbles from McBride and boxouts from her teammates. It was nothing fancy and something special because of it.

And all against Maryland, the team that pushed Notre Dame as much as any team pushed it this season when they played in January. The team that erased a halftime deficit in that first encounter and actually led the Fighting Irish with 10 minutes to play at a time when Notre Dame had a healthy Natalie Achonwa.

A Maryland team that entered the Final Four ranked third in the nation in rebounding margin.

On the first possession Sunday, Taya Reimer drove aggressively, albeit recklessly, at two Maryland players. The freshman starting in place of Achonwa missed a forced shot, but Ariel Braker was in position for the rebound. Braker missed an attempted follow, but nobody from Maryland bothered to box out Reimer, who got another offensive rebound and promptly missed the third attempt of the sequence. That left Loyd to claim the offensive rebound and score the game's opening points -- nine seconds after the original miss.

Things didn't improve much for Maryland. Notre Dame scored 12 second-chance points in the first half. Maryland scored none. For the game, the edge was 20-3 for the Irish.

There wasn't any secret to how the Irish did it. They attacked the offensive glass and boxed out on the defensive end, four or five white shirts creating a wall on most Maryland shots. As to why they came out with that kind of focus on the fundamentals, their answer came down to an even less dramatic plot twist. They practiced that way.

"We really went hard Wednesday and Thursday," McGraw said. "And we needed to because everybody was ready. We almost burst out of the locker room to get to practice because we were so fired up about all the opportunities that were available for everybody.

"I think it was good. They really enjoyed it. I think it was very intense, and we felt good afterward."

Spiritually good, perhaps, if a little physically sore. The coaches had bubbles placed over the baskets to make sure every shot missed (another way to slow down McBride -- see, it isn't so difficult). Then they told the male practice players the team uses in South Bend, Ind., to dole out some extra punishment in drills. And when the Fighting Irish got to Nashville, sans practice players, the players simply picked up the slack and beat the daylights out of each other instead.

"When we came here, we had to beat up on each other," Braker said. "We just really challenged each other in practice, to the point where practice is sometimes harder than the games. I think this is one of those games where we had challenged each other so much in practice that the rebounding was probably harder in practice than it was in the actual game."

This wasn't one player piling up a couple of dozen boards -- mostly because the player most capable of doing that was in street clothes on the bench. Five players finished with at least five rebounds. Loyd and McBride combined for 16, but Markisha Wright and Reimer combined for 14 playing essentially in place of Achonwa. After playing just three minutes in the regional final against Baylor and 22 minutes in the past three rounds combined, Wright finished with 12 points and nine rebounds and the votes of more than a few teammates as the player of the game.

The collective effort was no less comprehensive on the defensive end, where Maryland All-American Alyssa Thomas suffered through a difficult final game. Thomas scored 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting. She was frequently guarded by Loyd, who gave up some height to the forward but nothing in athleticism. Yet the Irish were similarly effective forcing Thomas right and making her take contested jumpers against a variety of defenses, just as the traps they threw at a young Maryland backcourt were effective in derailing offensive rhythm before the ball even got to Thomas.

Which brings us back to McBride, the perfect star for a game that could double as an instructional video.

The first shot she hit was a midrange jumper from the corner. Of course it was. Nobody in college basketball at the moment shoots that shot, vanishing art form or not, as well as McBride does. She has become much more proficient and prolific from the 3-point line this season and gets to the basket plenty, but it's the ability to hit from 15 feet that sets her apart.

"She's so hard to guard because she's coming down on the break, and you just don't really want to give her the 15-footer," McGraw said. "You'd almost rather give her the layup. She can get that shot, she can put it on the floor and drive to the basket and she can shoot the 3.

"She's got the complete offensive game, but that midrange jumper is really pretty."

McBride got that shot from her dad, Lamont, back in Erie, Pa. If you have a midrange game, he always told her, you can do anything. It's the fundamental building block of offense. The reason her hesitation dribble opens up such wide lanes to the basket is because defenders have to jump at the slightest twitch that suggests she's about to pull up.

Teams can put it on a scouting report, but it's just not something they see. There is a reason why when the games get bigger, she gets better -- to the tune of 23.1 points per game in eight games this season against Baylor, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina and Tennessee, not to mention 21.5 points per game in four games a season ago against Connecticut.

She did most of her damage Sunday night in the first half, but when Maryland showed even a faint murmur of life in the second half, McBride hit a step-back 3-pointer and a pull-up from the free throw line in quick succession.

She is a big-game player, and the only game bigger than this one is the one that awaits Tuesday night.

"The way that she can cross somebody up and get a bucket and then laugh coming back down the court and smile," Achonwa said of what sticks out in her mind about McBride. "The fact that she just loves to be a part of Notre Dame and loves to play basketball is really inspiring to us. She can have fun with it, and it's just so fun to watch her.

"No one in the country can guard her. She really showed that tonight."

McBride doesn't hurt for accolades, but she didn't receive a lot of attention in a conversation about national player of the year that centered primarily on Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike, Baylor's Odyssey Sims and Connecticut's Breanna Stewart. Partly that's because she shares the stage with Loyd, who is equally capable of taking over a game. But what's safe to say is the Fighting Irish wouldn't trade her for any of them.

"She's No. 1 in our book," Notre Dame associate coach Carol Owens said. "It doesn't matter where she's ranked -- there's a lot of great players in the country. But for us, Kayla McBride is the player of the year."

As long as nobody makes her shoot lefty Tuesday night, Notre Dame can believe perfect is possible.