NASHVILLE, Tenn. | Kayla McBride seemingly did whatever she wanted, and enjoyed herself while she did it.
The All-American senior guard shed defenders with behind-the-back dribbles and quick cross-overs before scoring. She set the tone, refusing to let for Notre Dame's pursuit of a perfect season end and her Irish teammates followed her lead into Tuesday night's championship game.
In one of the most impressive games of her career, McBride scored 28 points to lead Notre Dame to an 87-61 win over Maryland Sunday night.
"She was truly special," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "She was having fun out there and that was the key. She was hitting shots from all over."
The Irish (37-0) will play the winner of UConn and Stanford. It's the third time in four years that Notre Dame has been in the title game. The Irish are looking for their first title since winning it all in 2001.
"It means a lot as a senior," McBride said. "I'm so proud of this team. We went through a lot of adversity, especially after losing 'Ace'. We're going to go in and look at the film and be ready for the game."
Notre Dame played without senior Natalie Achonwa, who suffered a torn ACL in the regional final victory over Baylor. The entire team wore shirts in warmups with Achonwa's No. 11 and the 6-foot-3 forward's nickname "Ace" on the back. She helped her team warm up, passing the ball and offering words of encouragement.
McGraw, who was The Associated Press coach of the year, was concerned coming into the game about her team's ability to rebound against the bigger Terrapins without Achonwa. Her team practiced all week on boxing out and not allowing second shots.
It worked. The Irish dominated the Terrapins (28-7) on the boards, outrebounding them in record fashion. Notre Dame had a 50-21 rebounding advantage, including a 19-4 mark on the offensive end. It was the widest rebounding margin ever in a Final Four game, shattering the previous mark of 19 set by Louisiana Tech in 1989. Maryland broke the national semifinals record for fewest rebounds in a game of 25 set by Minnesota in 2004.
"We thought the game would be won on the boards and I think it was," McGraw said. "To hold them to four offensive rebounds for the game was amazing. We did a great job boxing out and really limited their rebounds. Kayla McBride got us off to a phenomenal start."
Said Maryland star Alyssa Thomas: "They wanted it more. They beat us at our own game."
Notre Dame also befuddled Maryland on defense, forcing the Terps into turnovers and poor shots with ever-changing defenses. Thomas, who finished with 14 points, was constantly double-teamed and rarely got good looks at the basket.
Thomas ended her career as the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder. She had waited four years to make the Final Four. Coach Brenda Frese took her out with 1:33 left, giving her star a long hug as she headed to the bench.
This was Maryland's first trip to the Final Four since winning the championship in 2006. The Terps were intent on crashing the party and ruining Notre Dame's perfect season.
For the first 12 minutes they were able to keep the game close. They only trailed 23-21 before McBride and Notre Dame took control with a 10-0 run. McBride had the first five points hitting a layup and converting a nifty three-point play.
Taya Reimer, who replaced Achonwa in the starting lineup, scored her first points of the game on a layup to cap the burst and make it 33-21. The teams traded baskets over the next few minutes and the Irish led 37-27 before closing the half by scoring 11 of the final 15 points, including a crisp pass from Reimer to a cutting McBride for a layup — a play often run between Achonwa and McBride.
The first half was similar to the first meeting in the regular season when the Irish jumped all over the Terrapins, taking a 22-point advantage before Maryland rallied.
There was no comeback this time.
"Obviously the better team won," Frese said. "Notre Dame did a terrific job. They took advantage and set the tone from the first possession. We really struggled to have an answer for (Jewell) Loyd and McBride."
Loyd finished with 16 points and McBride slammed the door. She scored five straight points, including a 3-pointer and a pullup jumper that made it 59-37 with 15:46 left. The Terrapins never challenged the rest of the way.
"I was trying to have fun. The last few games I've been pressing a little bit. I tried to do too much," McBride said. "I let this game come to me. I got us out and gave us that confidence but (my teammates) took care of the rest."