SOUTH BEND, 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 night in front of a raucous home crowd to earn their fourth straight trip to the Final Four.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this team,” said McGraw, who is in her 27th season at Notre Dame. “This senior class came in unheralded and set all kind of records. To win it at home, to celebrate with our fans, is special. Jewell Loyd, what a phenomenal 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, Tenn.
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The Irish got a scare Monday when Achonwa hurt her left knee with slightly less than five minutes left. McGraw said her senior center would have an MRI on Tuesday.
“It sucked the air right out of the room,” McGraw said. “I don’t know what it is yet. … You hate to see a player go down like that.”
Notre Dame became the sixth school to reach the Women’s Final Four in at least four straight seasons, joining Connecticut, Louisiana State, Stanford, Louisiana Tech and Tennessee.
The loss ended the brilliant career of Baylor guard Odyssey Sims, who finished this season with 1,054 points — eight short of the NCAA record for a season set by Jackie Stiles of Missouri State in 2000-01.
Sims scored 33 points for Baylor (32-5), but had little help on offense. Teammates were a combined 12 for 45, with no one else scoring in double digits.
“I had a great run. My four years, I’ve enjoyed it,” Sims said. “Not one moment have I been unhappy at Baylor. I got to play with a lot of great players. This season is probably my most enjoyable. I like the team I’ve been around.”
The win extended Notre Dame’s home winning streak to 28 games. Baylor was the last team to beat the Irish in South Bend — doing so on Dec. 5, 2012 — but that team had 6-foot-8 center Brittney Griner.
Despite the loss, it was another superb season for Baylor. The Bears advanced to the regional final for the fourth time in five seasons, a year after they were eliminated in the regional semifinals with Griner by Louisville in one of the biggest upsets in women’s basketball history.
Notre Dame took control in the first half with senior Kayla McBride on the bench because of 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 three-point play that made the score 24-21.
“We needed every single thing that she did,” McGraw said. “Jewell felt like she could score whenever she wanted.”