- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Shortly after Skylar Diggins signed with Notre Dame, fans from her South Bend neighborhood lined up around the block to buy tickets to watch the local hero play in college. Diggins is gone, but there still wasn't a seat to be found or a word to be heard inside Purcell Pavilion on Monday night for the best show in town
And there is still a trip to the Final Four and a possible perfect season awaiting the Fighting Irish.
Behind 30 points from Jewell Loyd, No. 1 seed Notre Dame's 88-69 win against No. 2 seed Baylor sends the Fighting Irish to the Final Four for the fourth season in a row.
Key stat: Fouls, 46 of them. The two teams played with such energy and such moments of individual brilliance that they made it a compelling show all the same, but Monday was a whistle concert as much as a basketball game. Notre Dame bore the brunt early, with Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa landing in foul trouble, but Baylor heard the whistle plenty of times. Nina Davis fouled out with more than six minutes remaining, Odyssey Sims played with four fouls, including an intentional foul, and a technical foul on Kim Mulkey weighed heavily in momentum.
Turning point: With a little less than 14 minutes remaining in the game, Baylor had trimmed what was a double-digit deficit to five points and had momentum in the form of McBride and Achonwa both sitting on the Notre Dame bench with three fouls. A rushed layup from Fighting Irish freshman Taya Reimer could have sent the Lady Bears off to the races in transition, but Reimer followed her own miss and scored to extend the lead back to seven points. On the ensuing trip down the floor, Sims was whistled for an offensive foul and head coach Kim Mulkey then drew a technical for grabbing the basketball and bouncing it (to say she slammed it might be excessive) in frustration.
Baylor eventually got the margin back to five points after that sequence, but an intentional foul on Sims with seven minutes remaining after her turnover set Lindsay Allen loose on a break once again stalled any comeback.
Setting the tone: With Baylor up 21-17 midway through the first half, it looked like the turning point might end up being the offensive foul McBride drew while trying to establish position in the post against Makenzie Robertson less than four minutes into the game. Loyd, with some help from Achonwa, ensured that became just a footnote. From down four points with just less than 10 minutes remaining, Notre Dame went on a 14-0 run in which Loyd scored eight points -- including the play of the night when she launched herself into traffic in the lane and finished a windmill shot as she drew a foul for a three-point opportunity.
Key player: There is no doubt Notre Dame's most influential player was Loyd, no small thing given the company she was keeping, but save a thought for Achonwa. The player known to teammates and coaches as "Ace" was definitely a big part of the winning hand. Even before Loyd began putting on her show, Achonwa came out with an intensity and aggressiveness in the paint that fit the atmosphere in the arena. She had a double-double by halftime and finished with 19 points and 15 rebounds.
For all of those reasons, the joy of victory was tempered by the sight of Achonwa limping to the locker room -- not without first vociferously imploring her teammates to finish the job -- after an apparent knee injury with a little more than four minutes to play. Wearing warm-up paints, she returned to the court in time for the celebration.
How it was won: Notre Dame has been as good an offensive team this season as there is in the country, and even with one of its key players almost completely written out of the script and another limited in the second half, it still scored 88 points and attempted 66 field goals and 33 free throws. Baylor wasn't exactly looking to slow things to a half-court game itself, but Notre Dame got the game at the pace at which it excels. And despite the scrambled feel of play amidst all the whistles, it took care of the ball, committing just 11 turnovers.
Farewell to a star: Sims didn't get the points she needed to break Jackie Stiles' NCAA single-season record, but she can't hang her head after Monday's performance. She wasn't perfect, and the intentional foul hurt, but 33 points on this stage was a worthy final game.
What's next: Notre Dame advances to the Final Four to face the winner of Tuesday's regional final between Louisville and Maryland. This is the fourth consecutive appearance in the Final Four for the Fighting Irish, joining a list of just five other schools to accomplish that: Connecticut, LSU, Louisiana Tech, Stanford and Tennessee. No matter the result in Louisville, this will be the first time since their first appearance in 1997 that the Fighting Irish will not play a No. 1 seed in semifinals (in the each of the past four instances, Connecticut).
19dBonnie D. Ford