The last in a series of valiant comebacks by the SEC Champions fell microscopically short, allowing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to hold off the South Carolina Gamecocks 66-65 in the NCAA Women's Basketball Championship semifinal. With the win UND returns to play in the title game for the second consecutive year.
The Irish almost led from box-to-wire, jumping out to a 15-3 lead gifted by an ice cold Gamecocks squad starting just 1-10 from the floor. "I don't think it was nerves... that's kind of what's been happening to us," said USC head coach Dawn Staley, appearing in her first Final Four as a coach after being in three as a player at Virginia. "I mean, it's just bad plays, bad decisions at the beginning of the game."
The Irish seemed to switch a bevy of junk defenses practically each possession, confusing South Carolina while allowing a bigger Gamecocks team to put up mid-range and perimeter jumpers.
"We went triangle-and-two... box-and-one... 1-2-2 (zone)" said Muffet McGraw, coaching in her seventh Final Four. "We played a couple of possessions of man-to-man, played a little 2-3 (zone), throwing everything but the kitchen sink at them trying to figure out a way to stop them.
"I'm not sure if you can say they have a weakness, but we thought that pick your poison, we were going to let them take jumpers. We were giving up pretty much everybody except for Mitchell and Roy, when she came in the game. So we tried to pack it in on the post, which they still did a really great job of scoring against us."
The expected rebounding edge did appear from the deeper and bigger South Carolina, who won 45-37 on the boards overall and 16-10 on the offensive glass. But Notre Dame did just enough to force the SEC champions into tough mid-range jumpers, and recovered just enough rebounds to keep their edge through most of the contest.
USC shot 68% from the foul line this season but did itself no favors by going just 7-16 from the stripe, including an 0-5 from Alaina Coates, normally a 72% FT shooter.
Aided by the foul disqualification of both Brianna Turner (3:11 left) and Lindsay Allen (1:39 left) late in the game, the Gamecocks flew forward on a 13-0 run to take their first lead at 65-64 with just 1:12 to play. Senior forward Aleighsa Welch's layup was the go-ahead basket, then she picked the pocket of UND's Jewell Loyd to set up a the last three possessions that would determine victory.
A missed baseline jumper by Welch that seemed destined to go in with 30 seconds left begat a rebound by Loyd. The Irish leading scorer on the night with 22 points dribbled coast-to-coast and pulled up for a jumper to retake the lead. But her shot was tipped by South Carolina's A'ja Wilson, and the carom landed in the hands of ND's Madison Cable.
Cable hadn't scored in 21 minutes of play yet, focusing mostly on stopping USC's All-American Tiffany Stewart on the other end. Her fourth shot of the night was the first to score, giving the Irish a one-point lead with 16 seconds to play.
USC dribbled to the frontcourt and called timeout, but it seemed everyone in the building knew what would happen.
"We thought that Mitchell would get the ball and there would probably be a ball screen," McGraw said postgame. Brian McCormick (also writing for Swish Appeal) sat next to me and said before the play that USC would set a high ball screen for Stewart. Steve Spurrier, Darius Rucker, and the rest of Hootie & The Blowfish knew USC would set a high ball screen for Stewart.
But ND hedged hard and beautifully, got a deflection, and forced an off-balance heave from near the hash mark by Stewart that wasn't close when the buzzer sounded.
With the win Notre Dame earned a rematch with UConn for the national championship, and a repeat of the 2014 title game. They are a would-be dynasty if not for their opponent on Tuesday night, but will once again face the only non-professional women's basketball team on earth that makes them a double-digit underdog.
Last year both teams entered the final game undefeated, but ND lost by 21. And as lauded as Notre Dame deservedly continues to be, it would be hard to envision an outcome that isn't similar 364 days later in the rematch.