Muffet McGraw instructs Michaela Mabrey at Saturday's practice.

Unbeaten Irish Set for All-ACC National Semifinal vs. Maryland

April 6, 2014

Irish NCAA Central | Game Notes | Last ND-UMD Meeting | Saturday Photos | Season Photos | Timeline

McGraw National COY | Two All-Americans | When Belief Began | Reimer Embracing Chance

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Brenda Frese and her Maryland Terrapins feel like uninvited guests at the Final Four.

And that’s fine with the Terrapins coach.

Back in the national semifinals for the first time since winning the championship in 2006, Maryland will try to spoil an unprecedented title game when the Terrapins face undefeated Notre Dame on Sunday night. Stanford plays unbeaten UConn in the other semifinal.

“Maryland and Stanford are the extras at the Miss USA pageant,” Frese quipped. “Our job is to be able to crash the party.”

While fourth-seeded Maryland (28-6) surprised many by reaching the Final Four, Notre Dame has been on a roll all season. The Irish are two wins away from the first undefeated season in school history and a second national championship. Coach Muffet McGraw said her team tries to focus on the next game and not making history, which has helped them remain perfect this season.

“It’s been easy,” McGraw said of keeping her team focused. “The easiest thing that we’ve had to do this year. Take it one game at a time. The seniors have done a great job, making sure nobody is looking ahead. We’ve been here before and we know we have a lot of work to do.

“You can’t get to a national championship till you win the first game.”

The Irish (36-0) are still dealing with the loss of senior leader Natalie Achonwa, who suffered a torn ACL in the regional final victory over Baylor on Monday night. Achonwa said the team dealt with her injury well and is concentrating on the upcoming game.

“I think that we’re just focusing on playing Maryland. We’re focusing on what are we going to do offensively and defensively right now,” she said. “It happened; I tore my ACL. It happened and I think we’re looking beyond that, and what we’re going to do to win tomorrow.”

Achonwa was on the sidelines during the team’s open practice leaning on her crutches. She was shouting encouraging words to her teammates and talking to freshman Taya Reimer, who will replace her in the starting lineup.

“Only advice I can give her is be Taya Reimer,” Achonwa said. “She doesn’t have to be me. At the end of the day, she came to Notre Dame for a reason. Coach McGraw recruited her because she’s a great basketball player and a great person. She just needs to go out and do that.”

Even without their senior leader, the Irish have an experience advantage over the Terrapins, having advanced to the Final Four the last four years. They are still looking for their first title since 2001.

“And I think for us, you know, it’s more of a business trip,” McGraw said. “And we’re enjoying it and I think we’ve enjoyed all the moments that we’ve had this year, but I think there’s so many distractions today especially with the open practice, autograph signings and all those things, that you need to make sure you’re focused on the task at hand.”

The two teams met back in January with the Irish coming away with an 87-83 victory. Notre Dame had a 22-point lead in that game before the Terrapins rallied to take the lead in the second half before falling.

Both sides feel that the game becoming tight could benefit them.

“It really does,” McGraw said. “Watching film, you get to see them at their best. That’s what you need. Going into a game like this, you want to see what they do well. Alyssa Thomas was unstoppable. She was phenomenal in the second half. She rebounded, she scored, she did everything she wanted to do.”

Thomas remembered how her team got off to a rough beginning.

“We did not come out to a good start,” the senior All-American said. ” Once we settled down, we were able to get back into the game.”

Thomas was thrilled to finally make the Final Four.

“I think the biggest thing is to experience this for my teammates,” she said. “I’ve been saying it for the longest time. I just want them to be here with me. I’m really excited that, finally get to be on the playing side of the Final Four.”

STAR POWER: There is no shortage of star players in the Final Four. Four of the five first-team All-Americans are still playing. Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas has raised her game in the NCAA tournament while Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike has carried the Cardinal. UConn’s Breanna Stewart had a record tournament as a freshman last season and has helped the Huskies win 44-straight games. Notre Dame may have the best backcourt in the country with Jewell Loyd and Kayla McBride. Both will be depended on to overcome the loss of Achonwa.

CHAMPIONSHIP COACHES: Some of the best coaches in the women’s game will be roaming the sideline. Each of the four have won national championships with Auriemma leading the way with eight. McGraw, Auriemma and Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer are Hall of Famers and all four have been previously honored as AP Coach of the Year.

BACK AGAIN: Reaching the Final Four seems to have become an annual rite for UConn, Notre Dame and Stanford. The Huskies have been to the national semifinals seven straight years while the Irish have made four straight. Stanford had a run of five in a row snapped last season by Georgia, but the Cardinal are back again for the sixth time in seven years. Maryland is the newcomer, reaching the Final Four for the first time since 2006 – the year it won the national title.

FRESHMEN FOCUS: Lexie Brown has had an impressive tournament. The Maryland freshman scored 20 points, including hitting nine of 10 free throws, to get the Terps to the Final Four. She earned All-Regional honors. Notre Dame first-year player Taya Reimer has also played well, and will likely get more opportunities with Achonwa sidelined. Stanford’s Lili Thompson is the team’s third-leading scorer and is building a reputation as a fierce defender. She shut down Penn State’s Maggie Lucas in the regional semifinals, then went toe-to-toe with Diamond DeShields of North Carolina in the regional final.

HISTORY IN THE MAKING: If UConn or Notre Dame does win the title it will mark the second time ever that all three NCAA divisions had teams post undefeated records in the same season. Bentley won the Division II title this season and FDU-Florham was the DIII champ. In 1995, Connecticut, North Dakota State and Capital were all unbeaten.

DUKE COACH’S ANALYSIS: Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie takes a look at the games in the women’s Final Four. Her Blue Devils played Connecticut, Notre Dame and Maryland this year.

It’s interesting with two ACC teams that know each other pretty well. My heart truly goes out to Notre Dame as I can’t get over what happened to Natalie Achonwa. The X-factor is that Maryland doesn’t really know what the Irish will look like without her on the floor.

They had a little taste when they played in the regular season as Achonwa was in foul trouble, but this is different. The emotional factor. The exciting part of when your team faces adversity is that it’s amazing to see who will step up. That’s the part that Maryland can’t prepare for.

The Terrapins do know that the Irish have a special backcourt with Jewell Loyd and Kayla McBride. The two of them will be key to Notre Dame’s success.

Maryland is coming into the game with confidence after beating Tennessee and winning on Louisville’s home floor. They pushed Notre Dame to the wire in the first meeting and have been playing so well lately.

Alyssa Thomas has learned to take a team to the Final Four and she’s playing so well this tournament. Lexie Brown has really come of age lately and hasn’t played like a freshman at all in the NCAAs.

Maryland is relishing the role of being the underdog and Brenda Frese will continue to use that to her advantage. While she has the experience of coaching a championship team in 2006, the Irish players, coaches and team managers all have a comfort level having been to the Final Four the last three years.

You can’t underestimate that fact.

For Maryland to be successful, their bigs will have to play the way they can and crash the boards and physically take over the game. Katie Rutan also can be an x-factor for them if she hits her shots. It spreads the floor, giving more space for Thomas.