NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Natalie Achonwa faced a world of emotions in a joyous Notre Dame locker room.
She missed being on the court, but she felt an enormous sense of gratitude that her teammates put aside adversity to reach the national championship game.
With an All-American lost at the tail end of the year, the Irish weren’t supposed to make it look this easy.
They weren’t supposed to crush Maryland by an 87-61 margin on Sunday night at the Women’s Final Four in Bridgestone Arena.
But Achonwa offered an impassioned speech in the pregame huddle, dispensed more advice than a guidance counselor and watched top-seeded Notre Dame beat the Terrapins at their own game.
It all added up to a chance for Notre Dame (37-0) to finish a dream season Tuesday night with a victory over No. 1 seed Connecticut (39-0), which beat Stanford 75-56 in the other semifinal.
The first-ever battle of unbeaten teams in the title game, and the fourth year in a row of a UConn-Notre Dame showdown at the Final Four, is all set.
“I can’t even think of a word better than ‘proud,’ ” Achonwa said. “Everyone did one thing more. That’s why we came out and won by (26). We are a freight train. There’s nothing getting in our way.”
Certainly not the fourth-seeded Terrapins, who were blasted 50-21 on the glass and trailed big all of the second half.
And not Achonwa’s anterior cruciate ligament, which was torn Monday in the regional final.
“I could see it in their eyes the day after when we came back for practice,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “They were determined this was not going to slow them down.”
Skeptics wondered whether Notre Dame could still measure up to its standards without Achonwa.
“A lot of people doubt us and say, ‘You guys are too small, you can’t rebound, you can’t do this and this and this,’ ” guard Jewell Loyd said. “That only fuels our fire. The only thing stopping us is us.”
If Notre Dame is a freight train, then senior Kayla McBride is now the undisputed engineer. Her game-high 28 points and seven rebounds powered the Irish to their fourth appearance in the title game.
The school’s only championship came in 2001.
“It would mean so much to me,” McBride said. “I don’t think I would necessarily cut anybody, but I would do a lot of things to win.”
McBride pulled out all her tricks against Maryland, which gave the Irish their toughest test in January.
This contest bore little to no resemblance, with Notre Dame building the same big lead but protecting it, with Terps All-American Alyssa Thomas seeking the same driving lanes but finding them closed off, with the nation’s third-best team on the boards at times unable to grab even a single rebound.
Notre Dame snared three offensive caroms on the first possession, with the last resulting in a layup by Loyd.
“Crazy play,” said forward Taya Reimer, who started for Achonwa. “That’s something we struggled with the first time we played them. It’s great to go out and execute a game plan.”
Notre Dame had 11 offensive rebounds on 18 opportunities in the first half, which ended with the Irish on top 48-31.
After trailing 9-6 and 15-13, Notre Dame used an 18-6 run over a span of seven minutes to lead 31-21 with 6:35 left. The Irish scored on 11 of their final 14 trips before intermission.
“I don’t think we have painted our masterpiece yet,” McGraw said. “We were pretty darn close (Sunday).”
What better time for that than Tuesday?
“Not done yet,” Achonwa said. “One more. We have the pieces we need. We put them together and we’re peaking at the right time.”