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Connecticut center Stefanie Dolson (left) and Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd (32) battle for a rebound during the NCAA women's basketball championship game on April 8 in Nashville, Tenn. | Mark Humphrey/AP
In Jewell Loyd’s first two collegiate seasons, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team went 57-1 in regular-season games — the best record among any team during that time.
During those two years the team has won regular-season and conference tournament championships in the Big East (2013) and ACC (2014). However, the Fighting Irish have been unable to capture a national championship, falling in the Final Four twice to Connecticut.
Loyd, a 5-foot-10 guard and former Niles West standout, led Notre Dame in scoring as a sophomore at 18.6 points per game, and the Fighting Irish won all 29 regular season games by an average of 24.8 points.
“Our coaching staff is very competitive, and they bring in very competitive players,” Loyd said. “Even if we win by 20, they’re not satisfied. There’s always something we can be improving.”
Notre Dame defeated ranked opponents N.C. State and Duke for its first ACC tournament championship. But it was still a long way from reaching its goal.
“Our senior class had been to four Final Fours, so not making it back would have been a waste of a season for them,” Loyd said. “With Skylar [Diggins] gone and a young team, we wanted to prove people wrong and make it back.”
After winning its first four NCAA tournament games by double digits, Notre Dame beat ACC foe Maryland by 26 in the Final Four to set up a championship matchup with UConn.
“We didn’t take any team for granted,” Loyd said. “It’s a big test of your team, you get to see how mentally tough you are.”
Before the title game, Loyd said that she heard from Niles West coaches Tony Konsewicz and Mike Parker and some of her former teammates.
Notre Dame knew it would have trouble with UConn, especially with senior forward Natalie Achonwa out with a torn ACL.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game. They’re bigger than us, and that makes it tough to rebound for us,” Loyd said. “Natalie is a leader, and not having her out there hurt us.”
Notre Dame fell behind early in the first half, getting beat repeatedly on the inside by UConn. A pair of 3-pointers by Loyd trimmed Notre Dame’s deficit to 43-38, but UConn deflated the Irish at the end of the half with an offensive rebound and put-back.
“We missed a box-out right at the end of the half, and we were kind of frustrated because that’s a simple thing,” Loyd said. “We wanted to come out and have some energy, but some people were shot dead. We hadn’t been in that situation before, and we definitely lost some mental toughness.”
UConn would go on to win 79-58 and capture its second straight NCAA championship. For Loyd and Notre Dame, it means another offseason of preparing to make another run at a national title.
“We’ll be fine. We lost our seniors, but we’re ready and motivated and we have athletic kids coming in,” Loyd said. “Our team had a chip on our shoulder this season, but we want to be good again and we want to get back.”