NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Competitor. It’s a word Notre Dame senior Kayla McBride has used a multitude of times in the past few days at the Final Four to describe herself.
Her head coach, Muffet McGraw, even went a step further.“She is like an assassin,” McGraw said. “I think that she's willing to throw the dagger. She wants to give you the knockout punch. She's going to compete and battle on every single possession.”
Notre Dame will play Connecticut in Tuesday’s national championship game, and the Irish got there in large part thanks to McBride’s 28 points on Sunday night. She scored 19 in the first half, the best half by a Notre Dame player at any Final Four, as the Irish pulled away from Maryland to win 87-61.
McBride, a 5-foot-11 guard, was named an AP All-American and the ACC player of the year this season. She averages 17.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. She is part of a senior class for the Irish, along with Ariel Braker and the injured Natalie Achonwa, that is 138-14 in the past four years, the best four-year record in program history.
The Irish are in their third national championship game in the past four years, but the program is without a title since 2001. They fell to Texas A&M in the 2011 title game, Baylor at the same point the following year, and Connecticut in the semifinals last year. In fact, the Huskies and Irish are each the last teams beat one another. While Connecticut topped Notre Dame when it mattered most last season, the Irish won that matchup three times previously that year, and have taken seven of the past nine in the series.
The fomer Big East rivals did not have each other on their schedules this season, though, with Connecticut now in the AAC and Notre Dame is in the ACC. With the highly anticipated renewal of the rivalry on the horizon, McBride is more than up for the challenge
“They’re undefeated for a reason, and so are we,” McBride said. “It’s just an intense game. It’s fun; I love this type of game.”
Players and coaches from both sides have been dropping hints at the rivalry and mutual lack of fondness between the two sides, and McBride was no exception there.
“We are very competitive and it always seems to come down to the wire, but it is just a different feeling when you lose to UConn,” McBride said. “I don’t know if it’s because of the rivalry or because it is just so intense but it makes it more than any other game. I like and have respect for their players, but as a program and a player on Notre Dame, I dislike them.”
McBride’s career has turned into one of the most successful in program history -- she ranks sixth at the school with 1,855 career points -- but her road started a little bumpy. Her freshman year, she was removed from the team for most of the second half of the season, including the Final Four, due to personal issues. While she was still able to practice with the team, she could not play and could not make away trips.
McBride says sitting out was “terrible,” and that it was partly due to the fact that she had not been working as hard as she should have been. But she says going through that period “fueled the fire” for the rest of her career.
“It was hard not being able to the things that I loved and that meant so much to me,” McBride said. “But it changed my complete perspective about everything and I honestly would not be sitting here right now.”
Returning to the team for her sophomore season, she started in 36 of 39 games and improved her scoring output to 11.6 points per game. In her junior year, she upped that to 15.9, and in the four games against Connecticut, her average rose to 21.5. After setting multiple career highs as a senior, she seemed completely unfazed by the spotlight on Sunday night.
“I think the big thing that experience does is that it gives you more confidence each time,” McBride said. “Now that this is my fourth time being here, it’s easier for me to relax and just go play instead of pressing about it so much.”
McBride credits her competitive nature to playing with guys growing up. She would notice they were taking it easier on her, and she felt like she had something to prove.
Even with her fierce reputation, it is not that way when it comes to her teammates. McBride jumps at the chance to compliment the accomplishments of her fellow Fighting Irish.
“I don’t want to make it about me, I want to make it about our team,” McBride said when asked about her legacy. She said that it was an improved effort from everybody that got the Irish back into the national championship game.
“I’m so proud of this team, I think everybody stepped up,” McBride said. “I didn’t surprise me much, because I see them in practice every day, but it was just good for us to come together and do it for [Achonwa].
McBride’s teammates look up to her, too. Freshman guard Lindsay Allen, who has a 23 assists and four turnovers in the NCAA tournament, said that the two have developed a strong relationship.
“She’s a passionate leader, she’s an emotional leader,” Allen said of McBride. “She’s mentally tough, she’s strong, she just provides everything for us and we can always count on her whenever we need anything.”
No matter what happens on Tuesday, McBride is expected to be a high selection in next Monday’s WNBA draft. Like it’s been all season with the Irish team, though, it’s one game, one day at a time, and they still have one game before it’s time to focus on that.
“I’m definitely excited; the WNBA is something I have wanted to do my whole life.” McBride said. “But I still have 40 minutes left in a Notre Dame uniform.”