Created on Monday, 07 April 2014 Written by DOUG FEINBERG, AP Basketball Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw has deflected talk of a perfect season and a potential showdown with rival Connecticut all year long.
Now the undefeated Irish will get a crack at their rival when the teams meet for a national championship on Tuesday night.
The former Big East teams had developed the top rivalry in the sport. The Irish have won seven of the previous nine meetings, including beating the Huskies twice in the Final Four.
UConn (39-0) won the last meeting though, topping Notre Dame in the Final Four last season.
"It's better than meeting in the national semifinals," McGraw deadpanned about the title matchup.
The Irish (37-0) advanced to the championship game with an 87-61 rout of Maryland on Sunday night in the Final Four.
Kayla McBride scored 28 points in one of the most impressive games of her career. The All-American senior guard seemingly did whatever she wanted, and enjoyed herself while she did it.
"She was truly special," McGraw said. "She was having fun out there and that was the key. She was hitting shots from all over."
McBride shed defenders with behind-the-back dribbles and quick cross-overs before scoring. She set the tone, refusing to let for Notre Dame's pursuit of a perfect season end.
"It means a lot as a senior," McBride said. "I'm so proud of this team. We went through a lot of adversity, especially after losing 'Ace.' We're going to go in and look at the film and be ready for the game."
Notre Dame lost senior Natalie 'Ace' Achonwa in the regional final when she suffered a torn ACL. The team wore shirts in warm-ups with Achonwa's No. 11 and the 6-foot-3 forward's nickname on the back. She helped her team warm up, passing the ball and offering words of encouragement.
McGraw, who was The Associated Press coach of the year, was concerned coming into the game about her team's ability to rebound against the bigger Terrapins without Achonwa. Her team practiced all week on boxing out and not allowing second shots.
It worked. The Irish dominated the Terrapins (28-7) on the boards, outrebounding them in record fashion. Notre Dame had a 50-21 rebounding advantage, including a 19-4 mark on the offensive end. It was the widest rebounding margin ever in a Final Four game, shattering the previous mark of 19 set by Louisiana Tech in 1989. Maryland broke the national semifinals record for fewest rebounds in a game of 25 set by Minnesota in 2004.
"We thought the game would be won on the boards and I think it was," McGraw said. "To hold them to four offensive rebounds for the game was amazing. We did a great job boxing out and really limited their rebounds. Kayla McBride got us off to a phenomenal start."
Said Maryland star Alyssa Thomas: "They wanted it more. They beat us at our own game."
Notre Dame also befuddled Maryland on defense, forcing the Terps into turnovers and poor shots with ever-changing defenses. Thomas, who finished with 14 points, was constantly double-teamed and rarely got good looks at the basket.
Thomas ended her career as the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder. She had waited four years to make the Final Four. Coach Brenda Frese took her out with 1:33 left, giving her star a long hug as she headed to the bench.
This was Maryland's first trip to the Final Four since winning the championship in 2006. The Terps were intent on crashing the party and ruining Notre Dame's perfect season.
For the first 12 minutes they were able to keep the game close. They only trailed 23-21 before McBride and Notre Dame took control with a 10-0 run. McBride had the first five points hitting a layup and converting a nifty three-point play.
Taya Reimer, who replaced Achonwa in the starting lineup, scored her first points of the game on a layup to cap the burst and make it 33-21. The teams traded baskets over the next few minutes and the Irish led 37-27 before closing the half by scoring 11 of the final 15 points, including a crisp pass from Reimer to a cutting McBride for a layup — a play often run between Achonwa and McBride.
The first half was similar to the first meeting in the regular season when the Irish jumped all over the Terrapins, taking a 22-point advantage before Maryland rallied.
There was no comeback this time.