- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NORFOLK, Va. -- One of college basketball's more perplexing puzzles involves finding a shot Kayla McBride can't hit.
Hand in her face? Please, you're going to have to do better than that. Off-balance jumper from a tough angle? Child's play for the Notre Dame junior. On the move, in traffic -- with the shot clock winding down? Been there and done that.
But while opposing defenders and coaches have largely come up empty this season, freshman Jewell Loyd long ago discovered her teammate's shot-making kryptonite. This past summer in South Bend, through endless games of H-O-R-S-E, the ubiquitous shooting game, Loyd figured out that McBride can't do much of an imitation of a southpaw. Go lefty and you've got her.
"She got me a couple of times," McBride admitted. "But I take pride in my H-O-R-S-E game."
It does seem at times that she's working on it during the biggest moments of the biggest games. Points are points in the final accounting, but Notre Dame's second-leading scorer at 15.9 points per game is a master of the degree-of-difficulty shots. The same person who credits childhood chubbiness for some of her shooting touch -- outside shots were all she could get back then -- is now as strong with the ball in her hands as any player in New Orleans and is blessed with tremendous body control. She averaged 23.3 points per game in three wins this season against Connecticut, not because Geno Auriemma's team forgot to guard one of the best players in the Big East but because she is one of those players who can still hit the only shot that a good defense gives her. Not every time, perhaps, but enough times.
"She's one of the best scorers in the nation -- the best 2-guard in the nation," Diggins said. "Just somebody that can take the game over and score in bunches."
That assessment clearly comes from someone with a vested interest in such matters, but objective evidence leads to pretty much the same conclusion. If she isn't the unquestioned best, she's right there in the conversation with Cal's Layshia Clarendon, Penn State's Maggie Lucas and a small handful of other shooting guards.
This is not entirely new. As a sophomore, McBride averaged 11.6 points for the Fighting Irish, effectively tied with Devereaux Peters behind Diggins and Natalie Novosel. In fact, compared to last season, McBride is taking slightly more than four additional shots per game this season. But if there isn't a great deal of difference in what she's doing physically, those four shots per game might as well be a difference of four points on the Richter scale in terms of the mental side of the game. She was a very good complementary player last season. This season she had to be a star for the Fighting Irish to get back to the season's final weekend.
"I think her confidence has skyrocketed since she's been here," Diggins said. "She was not one to be vocal; you had to pull it out of her, what she was thinking. Now I think she's in her junior season, she understands that her role is to be a leader on this team. She's become more vocal. She'll say, 'Sky, I want this play.' And that's great for the next year. I'm glad to have her as my backcourt partner and someone you can count on.
"I feel like every shot she shoots is going to go in."
McBride doesn't take the easy route to her points, and it wasn't an easy path to the Final Four, either. While Diggins, Natalie Achonwa and the rest of the team's juniors and seniors are preparing for their third Final Four, McBride will play in just her second. She played the eighth-most minutes on the team as a freshman, but all of them came in the first 19 games. She missed the second semester, including the postseason run to the national championship game, to attend to what coach Muffet McGraw at the time described as an off-the-court issue. Neither she nor the school has since elaborated on the specifics. The forced separation didn't interrupt her development but instead shaped it.
"Without it, I probably wouldn't be the person I am today," McBride said. "I'd probably still be the person I was my freshman year. I think that I grew up a lot, having to watch my team go to the Final Four, having to stay back on trips, stuff like that. The most important thing in my life was taken away from me, and I took it as a lesson. I could have dwelled on it, I could have said, 'I'm done.' But it's something I took and I embraced. I got better from it."
She also embraced a change in mentors that could have been a source of anxiety, even friction. Among all the members of Notre Dame's coaching staff her first two seasons, McBride was closest to and worked most often with former assistant Jonathan Tsipis, who left after last season to take over the program at George Washington. It could have been uncomfortable to listen to a new voice at the same time she was handed so much more responsibility on the court, but McBride instead connected with new associate coach Beth Cunningham. The former head coach at VCU, who gave up that job to return to her alma mater, Cunningham called McBride last summer before they had a chance to work together in person. McBride recalled they talked for about an hour and a half, and it wasn't until an hour in that basketball came up.
Cunningham had McBride's trust. Notre Dame's all-time leading scorer until Diggins passed her in the Sweet 16 could then go about continuing to expand McBride's offensive game.
"She's the kind of kid that wants to be great and is willing to do whatever it takes," Cunningham said. "She isn't afraid to put in the hours in the gym getting extra shots, and that's my kind of kid. That's how I was, just always a gym rat, wanting to come in before practice, come in after practice, off days getting shots up. When you see a kid like Kayla, who has her kind of talent, but then you see the work ethic and commitment that she's willing to make, you know that you've got a great prospect on your hands."
It is difficult to overstate how important Diggins has been to Notre Dame this season, both in her production on the court and her ability to push her teammates in a way few college athletes can. But for all of that, she has still needed teammates who have both the talent and the desire to respond. Achonwa did. Loyd did. Ariel Braker did. And perhaps most of all, McBride did, becoming a go-to scorer on a team that enters its semifinal with a 35-1 record.
"I think she's faced some adversity and been able to withstand it to get where she is now," McGraw said. "She has a great mental toughness about her, and I think she has an appreciation for just being here, knowing that she missed some time early in her career. That road, I think you have some pitfalls along the way, and I think the more you can withstand that, the stronger it makes you at the end."
The ball will be in good hands when it gets to McBride on Sunday night. So will the program next season.