NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Notre Dame is heading back to the national championship game, its third in the past four years, and it is in large part thanks to what was supposed to be Maryland’s strength -- rebounding.
The Fighting Irish eased to an 87-61 win in the Final Four on Sunday while corralling 50 rebounds to the Terrapins’ all-time Final Four low of 21.
Most of the talk coming into the Final Four surrounding Notre Dame was not about who would be playing, but who wouldn’t be. After taking a hit of 14.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per game when Natalie Achonwa tore her ACL in the regional final against Baylor last week, many questions were asked concerning the potential trouble the Irish might face given Maryland’s size and nationally third-ranked rebounding margin.
Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw addressed on Saturday how she wanted her squad to approach filling the rebounding hole left by Achonwa, a battle she said would be the key to the game. The mindset McGraw wanted her team to play with was that if everyone would work to get one or two more rebounds, that would make up for what was missing.
That is exactly what happened Sunday night.
“When you look at our rebounds everybody had a few,” McGraw said. “That was our game plan, everybody had to do their job. Everybody had to do one or two more than they usually do. We did a great job boxing out, limited their rebounds.”
Maryland came in averaging 42.4 rebounds per game and allowing opponents to grab 32.9. It ended up with half of that average, a season-low 21. The Terrapins had been outrebounded just six times all season.
By the end of the first half, every Notre Dame player that saw time on the court had grabbed at least one rebound. Markisha Wright became a big factor, pulling down a season-high nine rebounds, compared to her usual average of 1.5. Jewell Loyd also shared the team lead with nine, and Kayla McBride added seven. Both Taya Reimer and Madison Cable chipped in five.
“I’m really happy with the bench,” McGraw said. “I think Markisha Wright in particular was just amazing.”
Wright, a junior forward, set a season high with 12 points. She came in averaging 2.1 points per game, playing in 34 games.
The Irish dominated the offensive glass, with 19 offensive rebounds that they turned into 20 points. Maryland only pulled down four on the offensive end, scoring three second-chance points.
“I think it's just our mentality,” Loyd said “We wanted the ball. We wanted to box out. We've been working on that for a while. Great to see that we actually dug deep and boxed out and a lot of different people stepped up.”
Not to discount the impact of Achonwa’s injury, but it proved to not be devastating to Notre Dame’s production -- mostly because it allowed their other stars to take more shots. McBride, a senior and AP All-American this year, took full advantage, shooting 12 of 21 from the field in scoring 28 points.
“In past games I was pressed a little bit,” McBride said. “As a senior, I felt I had to do too much. But I let this game come to me. But it was a team effort all around. I think if you look at what she did, Jewell, Taya and Maddie. It was everybody. I think I got us out and gave us that confidence but they took care of the rest.”
After all, this is an Irish team that has already shown resilience, improving its record the year after losing a 2012-13 unanimous first-team AP All-American selection in senior Skylar Diggins. Diggins led the Irish last season with 17.1 points and 6.1 assists per game. Notre Dame went 35-2 last season, and absorbed her graduation by carrying a 37-0 into the national championship game this weekend.
Filling in for Achonwa in the starting lineup was Reimer, who scored nine points and dished out four assists in addition to her four rebounds. Loyd added another 16 points. The Irish outscored the Terps in the paint 42-28.
Another area Achonwa was expected to be missed was defense, but Wright and Loyd held Alyssa Thomas, who averaged coming in 19.1 points and 11 rebounds per game, to 14 points on 5 of 13 from the field and six rebounds.
“They just wanted it more,” Thomas said. “They beat us at our own game and we just never seemed to get on the boards.”
“I think it was a team effort,” McBride said. “I think we threw a lot of different things out her. Jewell was guarding her. Markisha. Different people. And we were trying to keep her out of her comfort zone.”
The Irish had been hearing questions all week about how hard it would be to replace Achonwa’s presence inside. On Sunday night, they made it look easy.