TAMPA, Fla. -- It was a Jewell of a performance.
And it came when Notre Dame most needed it -- a 66-65 victory against South Carolina in Sunday’s first national semifinal game at Amalie Arena.Quiet statistically through four previous 2015 NCAA tournament games, Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd responded in a big way Sunday, tallying a game-high 22 points and 40 minutes. She added five rebounds and three assists, but pure numbers don’t complete this tale.
Her defensive double-team, along with teammate Hannah Huffman, of South Carolina’s Tiffany Mitchell at the end, helped sealed the narrow victory.
As final seconds ticked and the Irish clung to a one-point lead, Huffman and Loyd dogged Mitchell beyond the arc, obstructing Mitchell’s view and shooting lane. When Huffman sweated away Mitchell’s final heave at the buzzer, Notre Dame had survived.
“We knew they would have the ball in Tiffany's hands and they would have a screen up top and whichever way they got off, we would double her,” Loyd said of the play. “She went back and forth a couple times, and then she came over to my side and Hannah and I trapped her.
“Hannah [had] a great block and kept the ball in play, which allowed more time to come off the clock and everybody was able to contest. And great team defense all around.”
While Loyd ultimately quarterbacked the Irish, she hardly did so alone. Forwards Brianna Turner (17 points) and Taya Reimer (16 points) eased some of South Carolina’s concentration on Loyd, sharing the load offensively with their work around the basket.
“I thought Bri and Taya really played well, especially in the first half,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “They were 8-for-11. We talked about at halftime, we needed to get them the ball more. I thought we had more opportunities to do that and weren't quite as successful. We came out with a plan to go inside. Then Jewell got hot, and we kind of changed the plan a little bit and went to Jewell a little bit more.”The trio of Turner, Reimer and Loyd each logged 10 points in the first half, leading the Irish to a 32-28 halftime lead. Loyd scored 12 of her 22 in the second half, many of those points at critical moments. The Gamecocks opened the second half by scoring on their first three possessions to tie the game at 34-34. Loyd’s eventual three-point play at 16:40 put Notre Dame back in front 39-36
Another Loyd three-point play with 10:10 remaining put Notre Dame up 58-48; the foul shot put her at the 20-point mark. A minute later, she was at it again, forcing the Gamecocks to run with her. She grabbed the rebound of a rimmed 3-point miss by South Carolina’s Tina Roy and took it for a layup to give Notre Dame a 62-50 lead.
But, the plot thickened. Aside from Notre Dame going a bit cold -- with help from South Carolina’s bench depth and strong offensive rebounding -- Turner and point guard Lindsay Allen both fouled out (Turner with three minutes remaining and Allen with 1:39 left). Notre Dame clung to a 64-63 lead at the time of Allen’s departure. South Carolina’s Aleighsa Welch’s basket with 1:12 remaining gave the Gamecocks their first lead. Then, Notre Dame’s Madison Cable drilled a short jumper with 16 seconds left that ended up as the game winner.
“I mean, we went to Jewell, she had to do everything,” McGraw said.
“We practiced sometimes without her,” Loyd said of Allen’s absence. “And so we learned how to practice with her and now we know how to play without her. Confidence in our teammates and our coaches just believed in us. So we just have to believe in each other.”
Loyd’s output in Sunday’s national semifinal victory is her highest total thus far in the postseason. The two-time first-team All-American had 13 points in Oklahoma City Regional final against Baylor, 21 points in the regional semifinal against Stanford, 10 points in the second round against DePaul and led Notre Dame with 18 points in the first round against Montana. She also led the Irish throughout their Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title run: 18 points in the final against Florida State, 21 in the semifinal against Duke and 16 in the quarterfinal against Miami.
No points were as vital as the 22 she posted Sunday night.
"You know it’s a blessing,” Loyd said of advancing to Tuesday’s national title game. “This team is so young and seeing the younger kids get so excited and run on the court. You know, we are just glad we have to opportunity to continue the season.”