Notre Dame meets Maryland in the Final Four’s first game of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament in Nashville, TN Sunday. The two played previously this season with the undefeated Fighting Irish claiming victory 87-83 back in January. Notre Dame enters the game with a record of 36-0 on the season and 18-0 in Atlantic Coast Conference play while Maryland is 28-6 on the season with an ACC record of 12-4
This will be the fourth straight Final Four for the Fighting Irish while Maryland will be making their first appearance since 2006. The no. 1 seeded Irish are coming off of a dominating 88-69 win over No.2 seed Baylor while the no.4 seeded Terrapins edged n0. 3 seed Louisville 76-73 in a tight game last night.
Notre Dame did not come out of the game unscathed though, suffering a crushing blow as senior power forward Natalie Achonwa went down with just over five minutes left in the game with a torn left ACL. She is out for the remainder of the NCAA Tournament. Achonwa was just named third-team All-American and had been Notre Dame’s best player in this tournament and perhaps likely their most valuable player this season.
Fighting Irish head coach Muffet McGraw does have other options. First team All-American Kayla McBride, a senior, averaged 17.2 ppg this season and sophomore Jewel Loyd averaged 18.8 ppg helping lead Notre Dame to their finest regular season in history but Anochwa was a valuable commodity in the NCAA women’s tournament. She was the rare athletic post player and was the emotional and veteran leader of McGraw’s squad and will not easily be replaced.
If McGraw is looking for another post presence in the lineup Anochwa will be replaced by freshman Taya Reimer and junior Markisha Wright but more than likely Notre Dame will go to a four guard lineup a majority of the time. The Fighting Irish used the four guard lineup a lot last season, especially in three victories over rival Connecticut. The difference being of Anochwa was the post player much of that time with the four guards.
Waiting for the Fighting Irish are the Terrapins, who gave Notre Dame their closest call this season in a game that will now be similar to the one coming on Sunday in that Anochwa missed much of that game with foul trouble. Maryland was down 22 at one point in the game and rallied to nearly knock off the undefeated Fighting Irish.
Head Coach Brenda Freese of the Terrapins is leading her first team to the Final Four since Maryland won the NCAA title in 2006. They will be led by senior and three-time All-American Alyssa Thomas, who put up 22 points, 13 rebounds, two assists and three steals in the NCAA Elite Eight tournament win over Louisville. Thomas, the ACC player of the year this season, will be making her first trip to the Final Four. Her presence further compounds Anochwa’s absence as now the Fighting Irish will have to find someone to defend her. The Terrapins main threat on the perimeter is freshman guard Lexie Brown, who averaged 10.1 ppg and 4.2 apg this season.
This one will go down to the wire as it is hard to imagine Notre Dame being the same without Anochwa, but McBride and Loyd will be enough to make another run at an NCAA Tournament title. The Fighting Irish hold off Maryland 78-77.
Commentary by Mick Varner