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(Photo by Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Kayla McBride wouldn't let Notre Dame's pursuit of a perfect season end.
The All-American senior guard had one of the most impressive games of her career in Sunday night's national semifinal, scoring 28 points to lead Notre Dame to an 87-61 win over Maryland.
She seemingly did whatever she wanted, shedding defenders with behind-the-back dribbles and quick cross-overs before scoring. She set the tone for Notre Dame and her Irish teammates followed her lead into Tuesday night's championship game.
The Irish (37-0) will play the winner of UConn and Stanford. It's the third time in four years that Notre Dame has been in the title game. The Irish are looking for their first title since winning it all in 2001.
Notre Dame played without senior Natalie Achonwa, who suffered a torn ACL in the regional final victory over Baylor. The entire team wore shirts in warmups with Achonwa's No. 11 and the 6-foot-3 forward's nickname "Ace" on the back. She helped her team warm up, passing the ball and offering words of encouragement.
Muffet McGraw, who was The Associated Press coach of the year, was concerned coming into the game about her team's ability to rebound against the bigger Terrapins without Achonwa. It proved to be no problem for the Irish, who dominated the Terrapins (28-7) on the boards.
The Irish outrebounded the Terps 50-21, including a 19-4 advantage on the offensive end. It was the widest rebounding margin ever in a Final Four game shattering the previous mark of 19 set by Louisiana Tech in 1989. Maryland broke the national semifinals record for fewest rebounds in a game of 25 set by Minnesota in 2004.
Notre Dame also befuddled Maryland on defense, forcing them into turnovers and poor shots with ever-changing defenses. Terps' star Alyssa Thomas was constantly double-teamed and rarely got a good look at the basket. She finished with 14 points. Thomas ended her career as the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder. She had waited four years to make the Final Four and her only trip was a short one. Coach Brenda Frese took her out with 1:33 left and the game well out of reach. Frese gave her star a long hug.
This was Maryland's first trip to the Final Four since winning the championship in 2006. The Terps were intent on crashing the party and ruining Notre Dame's perfect season.
For the first 12 minutes they were able to keep the game close with some hot shooting. They only trailed 23-21 before McBride and Notre Dame took control with a 10-0 run. McBride had the first five points hitting a layup and converting a nifty three-point play.
Taya Reimer, who replaced Achonwa in the starting lineup, scored her first points of the game on a layup to cap the burst and make it 33-21. The teams traded baskets over the next few minutes and the Irish led 37-27 before closing the half by scoring 11 of the final 15 points, including a beautiful pass from Reimer to a cutting McBride for a layup - a play often run between Achonwa and McBride.
The first half was similar to the first meeting in the regular season when the Irish jumped all over the Terrapins, taking a 22-point advantage before Maryland rallied.
There was no comeback this time.
McBride made sure of it, scoring from all over the court. She had five straight points, including a 3-pointer and a pullup jumper that made it 59-37 with 15:46 left. The Terrapins could only get really any closer the rest of the way.
McBride, who also pulled down seven rebounds, was coming off one of her worst games of the season against Baylor in the regional final. In that contest, she picked up quick fouls and sat the bench for most of the first half. She finished with 11 points, going 2 for 9 from the field.
She reached that point total midway through the first half.