After rolling through an undefeated season, winning their first ACC Tournament Championship, and cruising through the first four games in the NCAA Tournament, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish make their fourth consecutive appearance in the Final Four joining Louisiana Tech, LSU, Stanford, Connecticut, and Tennessee as the only teams to achieve this milestone. Standing in the way of the Irish reaching the championship game for the third time in those four years is our very own Maryland Terrapins.
Thus far this season, only two of Notre Dame's 36 wins have come by fewer than ten points. One was a 79-72 win at Virginia and the other an 87-83 win in College Park. Before looking forward, let's take a quick look back.
January 27, 2014 - College Park, MD
The first sixteen minutes of the game brought back nightmarish visions of the first half of the 2012 Elite Eight game when the Terps trailed 40-21 at halftime before going on to lose 84-49. In this one the Terrapins fell behind by 22, trailing 41-19 in the first half before rallying to cut the deficit to twelve at halftime. Alyssa Thomas led a furious Maryland rally and midway through the second half the Terps captured a 64-63 lead. However, the Irish answered with a seven point run and Maryland never recovered.
It was a game for the stars to shine with Thomas leading the Terps with 29 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals. Notre Dame senior guard Kayla McBride finished with 20 points on seven of nine shooting including three for five from three point range. Sophomore Jewell Loyd authored a career high 31 points while adding 7 rebounds and and 6 assists. The nail in Maryland's coffin that night was McBride's deep three pointer over 6'4" Alicia DeVaughn. The shot came with 12 seconds to play after the Terps had played twenty-nine and a half seconds of solid defense and was simply a matter of a great player making a great play.
Downsizing the Irish
There's a reason the Irish are undefeated on the season. They're a balanced squad all over the floor and all over the stat book. Although Kayla McBride and Jewel Loyd draw much of the media attention, it is this balance than makes Notre Dame so difficult to deal with. Loyd leads the Irish scoring 18.9 points per game, closely followed by McBride at just over seventeen. Those two are joined in double figures by center / forward Natalie Achonwa who adds nearly fifteen. Of course, perhaps the biggest question hanging over Sunday's game is how the Irish will fare without Achonwa, the player Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw says, "sets the tone for our team in everything we do." The senior went down with what proved to be an ACL tear late in the regional final against Baylor Monday.
McGraw talked about what Notre Dame loses emotionally - but what do the Irish lose quantifiably with Achonwa unable to play? Certainly not the ability to win games. Notre Dame opened the season without her for their first three games. In addition to winning games against Valparaiso and UNC-Wilmington by 50 and 49 respectively, they managed to beat a good Michigan State team (RPI 31) by nineteen.
With that said, clearly they lose a capable scorer. Achonwa is not merely a third option. She has led the Irish in scoring on seven different occasions this season - including twice in the NCAA Tournament. But first and foremost, Notre Dame loses rebounding. Though her 7.7 rebounds per game average isn't overly impressive, the senior leads Notre Dame in rebounding and the relatively low number is more indicative of the balance the Fighting Irish have all over the court. She's abetted by Loyd, McBride, Taya Reimer, and Ariel Braker who all pull down five or more per game. For the season, the Irish out rebound their opponents by nine and a half per game.
In January's contest at Maryland, Notre Dame pulled down two more rebounds than the Terps. An absent Achonwa Will Likely put additional stress on starting forward Ariel Braker and the 6'3" freshman Reimer who typically sees about 19 minutes off the bench. The Irish might also need to call on athletic sophomore Jewel Loyd, who led ND in rebounds that night with seven, to again pick up that potential rebounding shortfall. Having led Notre Dame in rebounding on six other occasions this season, Loyd is perfectly capable of assuming that responsibility. However, battling against a team as big and as physical as Maryland in this role potentially limits her effectiveness on the offensive end of the floor.
An offensive squad
On offense Notre Dame is imposing and efficient. They run their offense with Death Star like accuracy and they are slightly better than Maryland in every measure. They score nearly 87 points per game; good for second in the nation. Maryland's 82.6 is eighth best nationally. The national average in points per possession is 0.9132. The Terrapins convert possessions into points at an impressive 1.10 rate - third best in the NCAA. The Fighting Irish score 1.14 points per possession.
ND leads the nation in field goal percentage making 51 percent of their shots. Maryland is fourth best at 48.6 percent and no matter how you slice this number the Irish have an edge. Inside the arc, it's the Irish 53.5 percent (2) and the Terps 52.3 (6) percent. Outside the arc, Notre Dame has a wider margin: 40.8 percent (2) to 36.2 percent (27). In effective field goal percentage, it's the Irish with the edge again as they land at 55 percent (2) and the Terps come in at 52.7 percent (6). (The numbers in parentheses are the teams' NCAA rankings.)
Maryland scores at least one point on 45.9 percent of their possessions. This is the third best in the NCAA. UConn is first at 47.7 percent. Anyone who guessed that Notre Dame is the team between Maryland and Connecticut wins the "Well, Duh!" poster for their wall. Their conversion rate is 47.3 percent.
As noted above, Notre Dame accomplishes all this with impressive balance though again, the balance should shift with Achonwa's loss. From several days out, it appears as though the Irish will have to look for increased production from their two All-Americans, McBride and Loyd. McBride hasn't played her best ball in the Tournament and could be primed for an explosion. Loyd is capable of lighting up the scoreboard as she did scoring 31 against the Terps in January and ringing up another 30 point game in the regional final against Baylor. In addition to those two, the Irish put four more players on the floor who average between 5.6 and 8.8 points per game. One of those is the aforementioned Reimer who is the position player most likey to replace Achonwa. Four players in their starting lineup account for thirteen of ND's twenty plus assists per game with McBride leading the way with a 3.9 average.
So will Maryland need to appeal to Obi-Wan Kenobi to challenge Notre Dame offensively? Likely not. In terms of scoring, Maryland can match Notre Dame's balance and they are nearly as efficient. Though Thomas is the Terps' leading scorer by a wide margin, the Terps have five other players averaging over six and a half, including Lexie Brown who has joined Thomas as a double figure scorer. However, if Notre Dame can shut down Thomas - something they failed to do in the first match-up - more than one player will have to step up with a big game. As should be clear from the analysis above, even without Achonwa, a team will need to score a lot of points to beat the Irish.
Stacking up the defenses
Defensively, in most of the statistical analyses, the teams are fairly close to one another. Measuring average points against per game Maryland concedes 61.9 compared to 61.2 for Notre Dame. But small margins in the raw numbers can create large disparities in a team's national placement. For example, Maryland's first round opponent Army, gave up 59 points per game good enough for twenty-seventh best in the NCAA. ND's 61.2 places them fifty-first with Maryland two spots behind at fifty-third. In defensive points per possession the difference is only .04 but Notre Dame's 0.81 is eleventh best in the NCAA while the Terps' 0.85 finds them behind forty-three other teams.
The biggest Terrapins' vulnerability the one the Fighting Irish may look to exploit is on the perimeter. Maryland's opponents make 31 percent from behind the arc (142nd) while Irish opponents make 28.4 percent (33rd). Given Notre Dame's 55.0 effective field goal percentage and their 40.8 percent three point shooting as a team, look for the Irish to use this to combat Maryland's perceived low post advantage. (In the January game, ND shot 43 percent from behind the arc.)
Who has the Windex?
Despite facing several outstanding rebounding teams in the NCAA Tournament, the Terps have maintained their status among the nation's best on the glass where they wipe away eleven and a half more per game than their opponents. Notre Dame is plus 9.4 but it is here that the Irish Will Likely feel the greatest impact from Achonwa's absence and it is here and in inside scoring where Maryland will have to press their advantage. Without Achonwa, Loyd is the leading rebounder for Notre Dame with McBride, Braker, and Reimer close behind. It's no surprise that the Terps are led by Alyssa Thomas who grabs eleven. Alicia DeVaughn and Brionna Jones complement her with about five per night. Maryland's bench, be it Malina Howard, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, or Tierney Pfirman may also play an important role As the Terps will look to exploit their size and wear down the Irish on the inside.
A winning recipe?
What does Maryland need to do to come away with the win? Personally, I think scoring more points will do it but I have a sense that you expect more depth than that. So, if you're interested in my speculations about what Maryland needs to do on the court to finish the game with more points than Notre Dame, read on.
First, the Terps will need to get off to a competitive start. They can't fall behind by twenty-two again and hope to come back. Second, they will need to determine the Irish play of the day and adjust to defend it. Once they see a play succeed Notre Dame has a tendency to run it repeatedly until their opponent stops it. In the match-up in the regional final two years ago, it was the high pick and roll and in the first half of the game in College Park that play looked to be a variation of the Princeton backdoor cut.
It may seem silly to say this but Maryland will also have to score. This season the Irish scored fewer than 70 points just once when they scored 69 at Duke in a game they won by sixteen. In the NCAA Tournament they haven't missed a beat averaging 88.5 points in their four wins. While the Terps are the only team to have scored more than 76 points against them this season, Maryland still came up short.
In some of the individual matchups, The Terps will have try to force Notre Dame's threats to play out of their comfort zones. In the case of Loyd, I think this means not allowing her to get into scoring rhythm by slashing to the basket. While she is a better than average three point shooter connecting on 39 percent of her attempts, she doesn't shoot from behind the arc often. Her six attempts against Baylor was a season high. Loyd looks to drive first or score out of the flow of the offense. On the flip side I think Maryland wants to force McBride to drive. McBride is a solid three point shooter at 37 percent and an outstanding passer with a good mid-range game but without Achonwa as a receiving option Maryland may be able to limit some of her production. Notre Dame blends so smoothly that if the Terps can disrupt their offensive flow and force the Irish to play one on one, it could set the table for a Maryland win.
But these things are easier said than done and the Terps won't be the first team trying to cook up a way to slow the Irish offense. With twelve games scoring ninety or more this season, the Irish have burned most of their opponents. As noted, Loyd can certainly drain the three given the opportunity and McBride is an efficient passer who shoots 46 percent as a guard. Both are more than capable of scoring explosions and each has at least one game over thirty points this season.
While the Terps won't have to deal with Achonwa, Notre Dame's role players are capable of stepping up and unafraid to do so. McGraw has been nurturing Reimer along but will have to demand more production than the freshman has provided in the Tournament to date. Micaela Mabrey, Lindsay Allen, and Madison Cable are the three best the Irish have from beyond the arc all know their roles. If Notre Dame chooses to attack Maryland from that spot on the court Sunday night, they may take on more of a leading role. And though Maryland's freshmen are no longer freshmen, it's the Irish who are much more familiar with this stage.
As Gary Williams would say, teams can often overcome the loss of a star player either in a game or for a single game but that it is the subsequent games where the loss is most deeply felt. And he's a hall of fame coach so I'm inclined to believe him. If that isn't enough, each of ESPN's four experts - Charlie Creme, Graham Hays, and the two Michelles, Smith and Voepel - all picked Notre Dame. If that still isn't enough, though Achonwa played 21 minutes in the January game, she wasn't too productive with 7 points, 3 rebounds, and only 1 assist and the Irish still won on Maryland's home court.
While top gun type showdowns are exciting to see, if the game again turns into a battle of the stars, it's more likely than not to turn in Notre Dame's favor because the Irish have two and the Terps have one. However, If Maryland can get contributions up and down the roster, the night might just belong to the Terps.