Cable's putback puts Irish back into title game

TAMPA, Fla. -- The two best players on the court in one of the best semifinals a person could hope to watch missed the last shots they took Sunday night when No. 1 seeds Notre Dame and South Carolina played for a place in the national championship game.

A first-team All-American and the national player of the year in some surveys, Jewell Loyd shot and missed with the Fighting Irish behind by a point in the closing seconds.

A first-team All-American, Tiffany Mitchell dribbled desperately around the perimeter before a desperate heave went wide with the Gamecocks behind by a point.

Meanwhile, the player who scored the final points of the evening, her only field goal of the game the final margin in Notre Dame's 66-65 win, was so anonymous even after hitting the biggest shot of the season that someone mistook teammate Hannah Huffman for her when the team's locker room opened to the media minutes after the game.

It's all right. Notre Dame knows exactly who Madison Cable is.

And to know why Notre Dame is playing Tuesday night, walk a mile in her shoes. Better yet, walk a mile on her feet.

Her teammates know that the Fighting Irish will play for a championship for the fourth time in five seasons in no small part because of contributions that went beyond the moment when she launched herself into the forest of bodies when Loyd missed a jumper with fewer than 20 seconds to play, corralled the rebound and scored on a putback.

"Jewell shot it, which usually it goes in almost all the time," Cable said. "I was just crashing any way to try to get a rebound. And it bounced right where I was, and I turned around and had an open shot, so I took it. Luckily it went in."

Bad feet make Cable's future uncertain, any decision on a potential fifth season as yet unmade for the fourth-year junior. But she made sure she will play at least once more.

"She is one of the toughest competitors that we have," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "In terms of mental toughness, in terms of coming out every day and taking charges at practice and abusing her body at practice, she is just one of the toughest kids. She played through a lot of pain, I think, over the years, but this year I think she's been feeling a little bit better."

McGraw said the win ranked among the most satisfying of her career, no small thing considering she already owned a national championship and four semifinal wins prior to Sunday night. Yet it was easy to understand why. For a game that South Carolina led just once, and that with 72 seconds remaining to play, this was the equivalent of a coin flip.

Notre Dame's Brianna Turner and Taya Reimer played South Carolina counterparts Alaina Coates and A'ja Wilson to a spectacular standstill inside, the former combining for 33 points and 14 rebounds and the latter for 32 points and 18 rebounds. Not bad when considering there wasn't so much as a junior among the quartet.

Loyd doubled Mitchell's point production, 22 to 11, but neither star had a vintage performance against defenses geared to take away their looks at all costs.

Someone else had to be the difference. Someone had to be that wafer-thin margin.

It was nearly South Carolina's Aleighsa Welch, the senior who piled up offensive rebound after offensive rebound -- nearly single-handedly bailing out her team's atrocious free throw shooting -- and scored all 10 of her points in the second half. The recruit who in some ways got the final stage of coach Dawn Staley's marvelous construction project underway, Welch did all she could in the game's final minutes.

But in a game in which South Carolina outscored Notre Dame 39-6 in bench points, mostly because of Staley's penchant for starting Coates and Wilson next to her, it was a Notre Dame substitute who summed up a team's success this season.

"She has embraced her role on this team," Notre Dame associate head coach Carol Ownes said of Cable. "I think she's the sixth man of the year for us."

McGraw -- who admittedly has in recent weeks called Loyd the best player in the country and Lindsay Allen the best point guard (at least on one night in Oklahoma City) -- one-upped that and suggested Cable was the best sixth player in the country.

"In terms of mental toughness, in terms of coming out every day and … abusing her body at practice, she is just one of the toughest kids." Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw on Madison Cable

"I think we have six starters, basically," Owens continued. "She comes off the bench and just gives us that added energy on both ends of the floor. She's guarding some of the best players on the other team. She's been knocking down shots. ... But she's selfless. She'll do whatever she needs to do for this team."

For most of the night Sunday, right up until that final follow on the offensive end, that meant trying to stay in front of Mitchell. South Carolina made it here as SEC champions because it didn't rely solely on its All-American, and Coates and particularly Wilson were unstoppable at times against the Fighting Irish. But Mitchell was not. Some of that was Loyd, who gave as good as she got in a fabulous one-on-one confrontation on both ends of the court. Some of it was the multiple looks the Fighting Irish threw at the Gamecocks, six defenses in all by assistant coach Beth Cunningham's count.

But a lot of it was Cable. With Loyd in danger of hitting the red line for fatigue and Allen in foul trouble all night, eventually fouling out with more than a minute to play, Cable stuck with Mitchell when the latter went right, left, forward or backward.

"We were trying to do whatever we had to do to try to keep the ball out of Mitchell's hands and limit her," Cunningham explained. "And we knew one person couldn't do it the whole night. It was just going to wear her down. Jewell did a great job on her, but we wanted to keep some other people on her so we could rest Jewell a little bit.

"Maddi has always been somebody that, defensively, really understood what we're trying to do and what she has to do to help us on the defensive end. She was outstanding, really tried to limit her touches and not even let her get it."

Cable sat out her freshman season because of stress fractures in her feet, the pain not altogether gone three years later. Teammates know that when she starts walking on the outside of her feet, it's one of those days. Not that she says much beyond a quiet acknowledgment of the reality. On the court, Cable looks angry, a grim stare or scowl usually across her face. Off the court, those around the Fighting Irish say, she's perhaps the goofiest person in the traveling party. There is no middle ground of moping or self pity.

The feet aren't great. You would never know it from how she plays.

"She is just relentless all the time," Huffman said. "She might not have had a million points tonight, but she did a phenomenal job on Tiffany Mitchell. Maddi is one of the most versatile players. Sometimes her role is to make a bunch of 3s, sometimes it's to rebound, sometimes it's to play defense. I think she fills each of those roles on any given night very well."

Loyd had moments of brilliance against South Carolina, to be sure, absorbing contact and finding a way to get shots around the long arms of Mitchell or over the even longer arms of Coates or Wilson. She hit a 3-pointer for the first time since the semifinals of the ACC tournament. She made smart passes. But it wasn't the kind of performance we saw earlier this season, masterpieces like when she scored 27 points and took 15 shots against Maryland or 34 points on 13-of-23 shooting against Tennessee.

Yet as it was during the regional in Oklahoma City, Notre Dame had more to offer. Against Stanford and Baylor, it was Allen or a hot-shooting half from Michaela Mabrey. Sunday night Turner looked for sustained stretches like the All-American she might become. Reimer, too, was up to the challenge in a post battle that offered no quarter.

And Cable was in her own way brilliant.

That was the question about Notre Dame when the season began. Were the Fighting Irish more than Loyd? That they will again play Connecticut in the season's final game is answer.

Cable said after the game only that she was focused on the moment at hand, this Final Four trip and trying to get the Fighting Irish the second championship they crave. Any decision on her future, she intimated, would have to wait. But there is certainly a sense around the Fighting Irish that the clock is ticking toward an end, as it is for all seniors this time of year.

"I would hope so, but it's completely her decision," McGraw said of Cable's possible return for a fifth season. "If she gets a good job opportunity, I think she'll look at that. We have three [high school] All-Americans coming in. But, you know, that experience is always good."

Two points and two rebounds in 21 minutes. It doesn't sound like much.

It was the difference Sunday night.