Young frontcourt leads Irish back to title game

Brianna Turner, right, and Taya Reimer fueled Notre Dame's offense in the first half, going a combined 8-for-11 from the floor for 20 points. John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. -- Notre Dame's 66-65 win over South Carolina in Sunday's national semifinal game is going to be remembered for South Carolina's late comeback, the heroic boxout and score by Notre Dame reserve Madison Cable with 16 seconds to go, and a great defensive play by another reserve, Hannah Huffman, on Tiffany Mitchell on the game's final possession.

But it was the play of the Irish frontcourt -- led by the young duo of sophomore Taya Reimer and freshman Brianna Turner -- that propelled the Irish to an early lead and kept the Gamecocks in check in the paint much of the way.

Most objective pregame analyses of the matchup between the frontcourts of South Carolina and Notre Dame would have come out in the Gamecocks' favor. South Carolina had the size advantage with Alaina Coates and A'ja Wilson. Both are key to what the Gamecocks wanted to do at both ends of the floor.

That was no secret to Turner or Reimer.

"I think a lot of people coming in said we couldn't handle their frontcourt and I think we did a really good job of it," Turner said. "We just tried to battle the whole game and not let up."

Turner and Reimer fueled Notre Dame's offense in the first half, going a combined 8-for-11 from the floor for 20 points and eight rebounds. Each of them had 10 points at the half. Turner scored eight of the Irish's first 15 points as Notre Dame built a 15-3 lead to open the game. It was a gap that the Gamecocks would close, but put South Carolina in a position to play from behind from the outset.

"The biggest thing was we wanted them to run the floor, because that's our advantage," said Notre Dame junior guard Jewell Loyd. "I don't think anyone can stay with Bri or Tay, and we just wanted to push the ball and get them tired."

Despite fouling out with 3:11 to go, Turner finished with 17 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks. It was her sixth consecutive game in double figures and her 27th of the season. She has been Notre Dame's leading rebounder in each of the past four games. Reimer ended up with 16 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks.

Between them: 33 points, 14 rebounds and 6 blocked shots.

South Carolina finished the game with a 45-37 rebounding advantage, and Wilson finished with 20 points, but Reimer and Turner put their team in a position to play for a national title.

"I think all season we've felt like we had something to prove," Reimer said. "We are a young team, and I think we've overachieved. But tonight it was a matter of knowing the scouting report and knowing what we were supposed to do. We know that they are a great interior team and that besides Mitchell, they get a lot of production inside, so just trying to contain that and get rebounds, getting stops where we could and attacking them offensively."

Jewell Loyd finished with a game-high 22 points, 12 of those coming in the second half as she became the Irish's go-to offensive option. But it was Turner and Reimer who set the tone.

"We talked at halftime that we needed to get them the ball more," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "We came out with a plan to go inside and then Jewell got hot and we kind of changed the plan a little bit. But they battled."

Turner admitted she felt butterflies at the tipoff, and a whole lot more in the final seconds before Huffman's defensive play sealed the win and the trip to the national championship game, but in between it felt relatively normal.

"We tried hard not to make it any different for her than any other game," Reimer said of Turner. "It's hard to come into this stage. I know, because I was a freshman last year. But we just tried to be loose and relax and treat it like it's another game. Every female basketball player wants to be in this moment, but you don't want to put any extra pressure on anybody."

McGraw called Turner "an amazing talent."

"She just wants to learn," McGraw said. "I thought for her first Final Four, she played extremely well offensively and defensively. And I know if you asked her, she'd probably say she didn't play very well, but I'm so happy to see her potential and where she's going to be."

For Reimer, who was thrust into a key role as a freshman in last year's Final Four after the season-ending injury to Natalie Achonwa, it has been an interesting season.

Reimer stepped away from the team for a week in January, taking some time off to reassess her young career at Notre Dame. She returned to the team and has been a mainstay on the floor ever since, the player whom Muffet McGraw called, "the difference in our season."

"This team, we have gone through so much," Reimer said. "At the beginning of the season, we meet and talk about our goals. When it gets down to it, Final Four, national championship, is always our goal. This season we've come together so much and this is where we wanted to be. I don't want to say expected to be, because we've had to work for everything we got. But it's definitely where we want to be."