Notre Dame, Baylor have wow factors

OKLAHOMA CITY -- For Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, the moment arrived during the ACC tournament a season ago. Playing Duke in the final, the high-flying Fighting Irish were locked in a low-scoring grinder of a game. Then it happened. Racing full speed down the left side of the court, Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd rose for an alley-oop, a lob pass rarely even thrown to anyone else in the women's game. The ball tracking too far ahead of her to reach at the apex of her jump, she hung in the air just long enough to stop its momentum with her left hand, control it and finish the play.

"I think that was probably the one moment on the sideline that I just thought, 'Oh my gosh, that's a "SportsCenter" highlight,' during the game," McGraw said this week. "I think we were clapping and cheering, and it was really an amazing play that we went afterwards to watch quite a few times."

The video reveals a more subdued reaction than that from McGraw, if not from her coaching staff, but that the Hall of Fame coach even remembered it the way she did speaks to the lasting impression left by the feat of athleticism.

To Loyd, while not forgotten, the play was just another completion from Lindsay Allen.

"We basically just look at each other and she throws it up," Loyd said of her point guard. "I used to play football growing up, so it was just like running for a touchdown pass. I was like 'I'm going to run it down and tip it in.'

"I knew I was going to get to that."

The word that matters this time of year is win. But all the better if there are some wows along the way.

And with Loyd and Baylor's Nina Davis around for Sunday's regional final (8:30 ET, ESPN), two teams that do a lot of the former are led by players who excel at the latter.

It's not that they are definitively better or more talented than their peers, not when you see a display like the one Connecticut's Breanna Stewart put on in the Sweet 16, but you can't take your eyes off how they do what they do.

"I sit there just like you guys do," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said of Davis. "And I go, 'How did she just do that?'"

Loyd and Davis were both around when Notre Dame beat Baylor in a regional final a season ago. Both were already stars by then. But they were also stars who took second billing, or at the very least equal billing, to older players on the roster, whether Odyssey Sims for Baylor or Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa for Notre Dame. They meet Sunday, this time on a neutral court instead of in South Bend, Indiana, not only as first-team All-Americans and not only as centerpieces of teams familiar with this stage of the tournament but as two players whose talents and styles are, in their own respective ways, unique.

One of them is textbook. If you assembled a team of the best and brightest in the necessary fields and told them to design a perfect guard, they would come back some time later with sketches of someone who looked suspiciously like Loyd.

The other is what an amateur with a spark of genius and no training would dream up in a makeshift workshop. Davis is too short to do what she does as a power forward. Her shot is too unorthodox, to describe it kindly, to be consistent at this level. Someone with her profile shouldn't survive in the Big 12, let alone thrive. But the ball finds the basket.

Wow. The word comes up a lot when people talk about either of them. According to at least one source, "wow" has been part of the language for more than five hundred years (its origins, for our purposes, sadly Scottish instead of Irish). For Notre Dame assistant coach Niele Ivey, one of the first such moments with Loyd came not in South Bend but during an AAU competition when the guard, already committed to Notre Dame but still in high school, breezed past 40 points in a game. Ivey knew Loyd was good. Everyone knew the fourth-ranked player in the recruiting class was good. But there are times in person when she's just, well, you know.

"I was blown away just by how easy she made scoring look," Ivey said. "She just has the ability to do things that women just normally don't do. It comes very easy, very natural for her. Her athleticism, her ability to raise up on opponents when she's shooting her pull-up jumper. I remember that game, just being like 'Wow.' We already knew she was good, but there was a 'wow' factor at that point."

She is explosive, both on the horizontal and vertical axes. Her jump shot is just that, a shot released once she has lifted off the ground and gained separation from a defender who either can't jump as quickly or as high. She is too big for small guards and too fast for big guards. Her shot is too good to sit off, but she's too good off the dribble to crowd. To be sure, there is a less visible intensity and an inner drive in someone who watches film not only of Notre Dame but of Kobe Bryant, whose approach she emulates, but the athleticism at her disposal to act on that competitiveness is a marvel.

McGraw came up with former Georgia star Deanna Nolan as someone who approached the same level of athletic ability, but a contemporary is more difficult to name.

"I don't think there's anybody like her -- I don't think there is anybody coming up like her," McGraw said of Loyd's athleticism. "I haven't seen anybody. She's just so amazing, that she has skills like a guy. She really can do things that a lot of women can't do."

The game against Baylor a season ago hinted at what was to come this season. With McBride in foul trouble, Loyd scored 30 points. She took 27 shots, three times as many as any teammate and one more than Baylor's Sims, but Notre Dame needed her to take those shots.

Even those who have seen it every day for the past three seasons aren't immune to it.

"Most of the time nothing really fazes you because you see everything she does in practice," senior Madison Cable said. "You see how athletic she is. But every once in a while, she'll do something that you're just kind of like 'Wow, I don't know how she did that.' But then again, you're not surprised."

Davis was at least a little surprised at one point late Friday night as she watched video of the game against Iowa that she had played in just hours before. She saw the ball come to her, saw the traffic around her in the paint, saw her smaller frame disappear into the thicket of bodies and saw the ball slip through the net. Seeing it is different from doing it.

"Oh gosh, that's the shot that everybody was talking about," Davis recalled thinking as she watched the image on the screen in front of her. "But you know, I guess I've just kind of got used to it. I've been shooting that way all my life. I still catch people off guard, I still hear Coach Mulkey say she's amazed at the shots and sometimes she just can't describe them. When people ask her to describe me, she still can't.

"It's something I've worked on, being able to change my body in midair to be able to get away from bigger defenders."

With Loyd, the perfection is glorious to watch. With Davis, the imperfection is, too.

The shot is, what? Ugly? Unorthodox? Discombobulated? Inexplicable? Confounding?

"I've pretty much heard all the adjectives you can come up with when it comes to describing my shot," Davis acknowledged.

It resembles a soccer throw-in as much as anything seen in a basketball instructional video, the arms coming directly over the head and the hands, instead of one pushing and one bracing, employed almost equally until the last second. Asked if anyone on the team could imitate it, senior Sune Agbuke noted that everyone has their own interpretation. It is more of an homage to an original impossible to replicate.

"She had that shot when I recruited her," Mulkey said this week. "Why would I change it? At this level in all sports, you don't change things in players unless it's something that is not very effective."

Credit to Mulkey for that, as well as seeing a forward in a high school guard, but her coach isn't alone. No one in the player's recollection ever really tried to tweak the form. They might have furrowed their eyebrows and scratched their heads when they saw it for the first time, but then they saw it go in the basket. Again and again. Because if the shot is difficult to figure out, it's nothing compared to the geometry she mastered in finding the nooks and crannies of a defense that will allow her to release it.

Davis can make you raise your eyebrows before the game even begins. When Baylor players lined up according to height for the national anthem before Friday's game against Iowa, there were six teammates to her right and five more to her left. At 5-foot-10, the best post scorer in the country, given how much of Stewart's production comes elsewhere, blended into the scenery. Then the game began. Even on a night that belonged to Agbuke and reserve Kristy Wallace, Davis wowed. As usual.

Davis has worked her share of basketball camps and discovered how many young eyes watch her. She was working out in a gym not so long ago, in fact, when a woman approached and told her how much the woman's daughter admired Davis. The woman told Davis that her daughter wanted to do everything like her idol, right down to that shooting style. Even the object of the affection blanched. She suggested that last part might not be the best idea.

When she instructs, it is very much a case of do as she says, not as she does.

"I do know the correct way to shoot," Davis chuckled. "I do know the correct fundamentals and how to teach somebody how to shoot. So when I'm teaching little kids how to shoot, I teach them the right way. I wouldn't recommend anybody to shoot like me."

It was an honest answer. As was the coda that followed, after a pause, from a player who is happy to grin at the quips and then go out and punish opponents for the joke.

"But hey, If you want to score 20 points a game, if you shoot like me, it may work for you."

The truth is we are unlikely to see anyone play the game quite like Davis in the near future, just like we're unlikely to see anyone quite like Loyd. Players as good as them? As productive? Sure.

But not like them.