March 29, 2015
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Baylor point guard Niya Johnson has had a year to think about a season-ending loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament.
She hasn’t forgotten the frustration of that Elite Eight loss to the Fighting Irish.
Johnson and the No. 2-seeded Lady Bears (33-3) will have their chance to make amends for last season’s disappointment when they again face the top-seeded Irish (34-2) in the Elite Eight on Sunday night – this time in the neutral setting of Oklahoma City rather than in South Bend.
”We still talk about that to this day,” Johnson said. ”We’re just hoping to go out there and attack because we don’t remember the wins, just the losses.”
Last year Notre Dame – fueled by a raucous crowd of 8,774 – reached its fourth straight Final Four with a convincing 88-69 win over Baylor.
Several of the key players, namely Baylor’s Odyssey Sims and Notre Dame’s Natalie Achonwa, have moved on to the WNBA.
However, that didn’t stop these two traditional powers from eyeing a possible rematch – with Lady Bears’ standout Nina Davis admitting ”that was probably the first thing that popped in our minds” when the bracket was revealed.
Led by Davis, the Big 12 Conference Player of the Year, Baylor enters Sunday confident it’s improved and become more balanced. Notre Dame is supremely confident, riding a 20-game winning streak following an 81-60 win over Stanford on Friday.
The Fighting Irish had their hopes of an undefeated season dashed in the championship game against Connecticut last year. This season, they’ve been led by preseason All-American guard Jewell Loyd, who is averaging 20.1 points.
”I think we’re a very different team than we were last year, and you see that in the lack of experience at times,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. ”But a player like Jewell really can do a lot of things to cover up a lot of mistakes that we’re making.”
Five things to watch as Notre Dame tries to reach its fifth straight Final Four:
DETERMINED DAVIS: Last season, Davis was a key player as a freshman for Baylor, averaging 15 points. The 5-foot-11 forward has been the leader this year for the Lady Bears while averaging 20.9 points. She’s eager to improve on a seven-point effort in last year’s loss to Notre Dame.
AWESOME ALLEN: Irish point guard Lindsay Allen had a career-high 28 points, including 24 in the first half, in Friday’s win over Stanford. The sophomore leads Notre Dame with an average of 5.2 assists, and she’ll face a difficult matchup on Sunday against Johnson – who leads the country with an average of 8.9 assists. Johnson had 16 assists and no turnovers against Iowa, a performance that even Allen admitted she was ”a little jealous of.”
TITLE PEDIGREES: The schools enter Sunday with a combined nine Final Four appearances and three national championships between them. Baylor’s last title came in 2012, while Notre Dame – with four straight Final Fours – hasn’t won a championship since 2001. The Irish have fallen in the national-title game three times and were eliminated by UConn in both of the last two seasons.
STREAKING IRISH: Notre Dame’s last loss this season was at Miami on Jan. 8. The Fighting Irish’s only other loss was a 76-58 defeat in a rematch from last season’s national championship game against UConn. Notre Dame was without an injured starter in both games, as Brianna Turner was out vs. UConn and Taya Reimer missed the Miami game.
LOYD’S IMPACT: Baylor had no answer for Loyd last season, with the then-sophomore scoring 30 points on 12-of-27 shooting. Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey knows slowing the 5-foot-10 guard is key on Sunday, but she’s also an admirer of her play. ”Nobody really slows her down; she’s that good,” Mulkey said. ”She’s probably going to win every Player of the Year award out there.”