NOTRE DAME, Ind. — An unprecedented season for Notre Dame and coach Muffet McGraw has led the Fighting Irish to a familiar place.
Jewell Loyd scored 30 points and the unbeaten Irish beat Baylor 88-69 on Monday, March 31, 2014, to earn their fourth straight trip to the Final Four. The game went down as the loudest decibel meter reading in Purcell Pavilion history for a women's basketball game.
Natalie Achonwa added 19 points and 15 rebounds for the Irish (36-0), who will bring a perfect record into the Final Four for the first time, facing either Louisville or Maryland on Sunday night in Nashville.
"I couldn't be prouder of this team," coach Muffet McGraw said. "This senior class came in unheralded and set all kind of records. To win it at home, to celebrate with our fans is special."
It's the fourth straight season that the Irish are in the national semifinals. Notre Dame became the sixth school to reach the Final Four in four straight seasons, joining UConn, LSU, Stanford, Louisiana Tech and Tennessee.
The win extended Notre Dame's home winning streak to 28 games.
The Irish took control in the first half with senior Kayla McBride on the bench with early foul trouble. Trailing 21-17 midway through the first half, Loyd and Achonwa got the Irish going. Achonwa, who had a double-double in the first half, started a 14-0 run with a layup. Loyd then scored the next eight points, including a highlight reel three-point play that made it 24-21 and whipped up the sellout home crowd, which included former Irish star Skylar Diggins.
"That was huge," McGraw said. "We needed every single thing that she did. Jewell felt like she could score whenever she wanted. We were running things for her and she delivered on every possession."
By the time Sims hit a pullup in the lane with 5:32 left the Lady Bears trailed 31-24. The Irish led 44-32 at the half as Loyd, who earned most outstanding player of the region honors, finished with 21 points in the first 20 minutes.
Sims rallied the Lady Bears scoring the first nine points of the second half to cut the deficit to 46-41. After a Notre Dame basket Baylor was called for back-to-back offensive fouls — the eighth and ninth called in the game — and coach Kim Mulkey had seen enough, letting the officials know her displeasure. That earned her a technical foul.
The teams traded baskets over the next few minutes and Baylor closed to within 65-60 before Notre Dame took over scoring 16 of the next 20 points, including eight from the free throw line. The Irish were 30 for 33 from the foul line in the game.
They followed their senior leader's advice coming away with the victory. And she joined them for the celebration on the court.During the game-changing run is when Achonwa got hurt. She went down holding her left knee and after a few moments got up with help and pointed to her teammates, telling them to get it done before heading to the locker room.
The win was Notre Dame's first against Baylor, which had won the previous four meetings — including a victory in the 2012 national championship game that completed a 40-0 season for the Lady Bears. Now Notre Dame is two wins away from becoming the eighth team to go through the season unbeaten.