TAMPA, Fla. -- Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd expects to be swarmed on the basketball court.
Defenders slap an imaginary bulls-eye on her No. 32 jersey and escape is up to her, which means twisting, darting and dishing, all alternatives to seek meaningful points.
“She’s so happy when the other teammates score,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said Saturday from Tampa’s Amalie Arena, site of this weekend’s 2015 NCAA Division I Women’s Final Four. “And I think she’s that kind of team member that really helps empower the rest of the team -- ‘Hey, step up, I believe in you. You can help us win also.’“I think she’s very comfortable having other people contributing. But I think she is also ready for a big game.”
The Irish will likely need a big game from Loyd, a junior guard, in Sunday’s first national semifinal against South Carolina. They square off against a Gamecocks squad playing in its first Final Four, and no stage has been bigger for either team this season.
Notre Dame has the on-paper edge, playing in a fifth consecutive Final Four and seventh overall. Score one in the experience column for the Irish. But South Carolina didn’t get here on a whim. All four Final Four teams -- defending and two-time Division I champion Connecticut and Maryland are the other two -- enter as top seeds in their NCAA tournament regions.
“I just think that experience really helps,” Loyd said of Sunday’s meeting with South Carolina. “We understand possession basketball and both teams are here to try to win. So it’s going to be a competitive game and that’s what you want in a women’s basketball game.”
What the Irish would like is a virtuoso performance from Loyd, who usually escapes opponents’ defensive maneuverings. Defenders who target the two-time All-American to exclusion risk being back-doored and shredded by Loyd's teammates, who are used to taking advantage of star power.
“I think that what Jewell does, when she’s on the floor, she draws so much attention from the other team and their whole defense is designed to stop her,” McGraw said. “So it allows the rest of the team to step up. And the thing that allows them the most, I think, is Jewell, because she passes the ball so much.”
No one knows this more than South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, one of the all-time great guards as a player. Dogging Loyd for every shot, pass or forward motion will be one of the Gamecocks’ priorities on Sunday.
“Everything that she gets she has to work for,” Staley said Saturday, “and I think that our players are up for the challenge of just trying to stay in front of her. She’s a very good player who can create her own shot in a lot of different ways. So we have to be as patient and disciplined as well as confident on our defense.”
Though she was named a unanimous first-team All-American on Tuesday -- earning the title for the second consecutive season -- Loyd doesn’t enter Final Four action on a hot streak. Notre Dame sophomore guard Lindsay Allen was named the Oklahoma City Regional’s Most Oustanding Player for leading the team in scoring in the regional final win against Baylor and semifinal win against Stanford.
Still, Loyd’s stats are sweet enough -- 23.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.8 steals per game -- to place her as a finalist for every national player of the year award. A little playoff quietness doesn’t mean much, per her head coach.“When you look at her numbers, I would’ve been thrilled if anybody else on our team had those numbers,” McGraw said. “I think that she has been so spectacular all year long that we expect a superstar every single game. And I think that the beauty of us being here -- and our team, what got us here -- is the rest of the team.”
Loyd’s potential matchup against South Carolina junior guard Tiffany Mitchell -- another All-American first-teamer -- is marquee in every way.
“I think we both have the same mindset of attacking,” Loyd said. “We’re patient, pretty good athletes. People compare us pretty similar-like, but at the same time we’re kind of different as well.”
Since Mitchell receives similar bull's-eye treatment from South Carolina opponents, the two outstanding guards may neutralize each other, leaving their teammates to decide the outcome.
“I think in some instances when you have two great players competing at a high level and very similar in talent and skill set, they do have a tendency to offset each other,” Staley said of the impending Loyd-Mitchell duel. “But … they’re going to have to make plays. Tiff is going to have to make plays for us, Jewell is going to have to make plays for Notre Dame for both of us to be successful.
“I'd just like over the course of 40 minutes ... the depth that we bring into the game. So Tiff is having an off night, we feel good about being able to generate points from some other sources.”
“They’ve got a lot of choices,” McGraw said of South Carolina’s front-court depth. “I think that’s the strength of their teams is that they have so many great guards with terrific defensive ability in term of their athletic ability. So I think they can probably keep a fresh body on her throughout the game without losing a lot.”
Bring it on, Loyd says.
“You want good basketball,” she said. “You want good competition all the way around so you want the challenge, and it’s awesome. We talked about that on the court as well, and we're excited to play each other.”