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Unbeaten Irish cruise into final

Maryland Terrapins center Brionna Jones (center) rebounds against Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Kayla McBride (left) on Sunday at Bridgestone Arena. USA Today Sports photo

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Behind All-America guard Kayla McBride, the Notre Dame women’s basketball is one game away from perfection.

The Fighting Irish broke open a tightly contested first half with a McBride-led, 35-16 run, and Notre Dame routed Maryland 87-61 in Sunday’s first Women’s Final Four game at the Bridgestone Arena.

McBride scored 28 points on 12-for-21 shooting, and she pulled down seven rebounds as the Irish coasted for much of the second half. Notre Dame (37-0) awaits the winner of Sunday evening’s game between Connecticut and Stanford.

That game was not finished prior to press time.

“Kayla’s really hard to guard,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “She can do so many things with the ball, and she had a nice step-back move going early. She got to the rim a couple of times and she didn’t get in foul trouble, which plagued her the last game, so she was able to really play free.”

Notre Dame never was threatened in the second half by Maryland, one of its Atlantic Coast Conference rivals. The Terrapins found some momentum when center Alicia DeVaughn hit two free throws and followed with a field goal that cut the Irish’s lead to 54-37 with 16:34 left.

McBride quickly snuffed out any hope that Maryland had of rallying by hitting a 3-point shot from straight away. She then grabbed a defensive rebound, drove the floor and pulled up for a 17-footer that stretched the lead back to 22.

“They were really hard to guard,” Maryland guard Laurin Mincy said. “It seemed like they were shooting it in the ocean tonight. They were making contested shots, they were finishing with contact.”

McBride ended up three points shy of her season high despite playing only 30 minutes.

“I was in a flow,” she said. “In the Final Four as a senior, I was just trying to leave it on the floor. I was making open shots, I was feeling the crowd, feeling the environment.”

Maryland rested its hopes on All-America forward Alyssa Thomas, who averaged 19.1 points per game. The Fighting Irish, though, denied Thomas good looks, and she finished with 14 points on 5-for-12 shooting.

“When I got contained, it was always help-side,” Thomas said. “It just seemed nothing wanted to go down for me.”

Most of her points came when the game was out of reach. Thomas had just five points on four shots in the first half.

“We just tried to keep a body on her,” McGraw said. “We tried to double-team her if she came near a ball screen. We tried to run people at her, have someone ready to get a charge, try to force her to go right a little.”

Any chance the Terps had of mounting a comeback were essentially erased by Thomas’ foul trouble. Thomas picked up her third early in the second half and went to the bench with a fourth with 8:27 remaining and Notre Dame leading by 21.

The Fighting Irish slowed the offensive pace for most of the second half but kept on scoring. They extended the lead to 25 multiple times.

When reserve guard Hannah Huffman hit a layup with 1:41 left, the lead ballooned to 27.

All-America guard Jewell Loyd scored 16 points for Notre Dame, and reserve forward Markisha Wright had 12.

Mincy played well off the Maryland bench, scoring 11 points, nine in the first half. Center Brionna Jones added 16 and guard Lexie Brown had 11 for the Terrapins (28-7).

Notre Dame destroyed the Terrapins in the paint, winning the rebounding battle 50-21 and scoring 42 points inside.

“I can’t explain that,” McGraw said. “That was something I didn’t even expect. I was just hoping we could outrebound them. We talked about rebounding being the key to the game, but boy, we did more than our share.”

Thomas said, “They just wanted it more. They focused on beating us on the boards, and they did.”

Maryland coach Brenda Frese was asked about saying goodbye to Thomas for the final time.

“I thanked her,” Frese said. “It was a dream come true to coach her. She left every single thing that she possibly could on the floor. It’s too early to think about life after her, but I am encouraged by the great minutes that our team was able to give this year, when you talk about our underclassmen we were able to develop.”

NOTES: This game featured three of the 10 players on the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association All-America squad, which was announced Saturday: Maryland F Alyssa Thomas, Irish G Jewell Loyd and Notre Dame G Kayla McBride. ... Notre Dame played without starting F Natalie Achonwa, who tore her ACL in the Irish’s regional final victory over Baylor. Achonwa watched from the bench in street clothes as freshman Taya Reimer started in her place and scored nine points. ... The teams met earlier in the season, when Notre Dame scored an 87-83 road victory on Jan. 27. ... The NCAA, making a point of emphasis of rules changes designed to improve freedom of movement and better shooting percentages, honored South Carolina coach Dawn Staley during a first-half break for coaching the nation’s most improved field-goal-shooting team. The Gamecocks shot 9.43 percent better than they did last year.