TAMPA, Florida — Sometimes, heroes come from the least likely places.
Just ask guard Madison Cable, who shot the Notre Dame women’s basketball team into the national championship game.
Irish All-America guard Jewell Loyd? Her, you might have expected. However, Loyd’s jump shot with 24 seconds fell just short, leaving the Irish one point behind South Carolina. However, Cable, who had not scored all night, swept underneath the basket, grabbed the rebound and then turned and hit the game-winner with 18 seconds to play.
The sequence gave Notre Dame a 66-65 win in a game it led almost all the way and a berth in Tuesday night’s championship game. The Irish (36-2) will meet UConn, an 81-58 winner over Maryland in the second semifinal. All of the Final Four teams were top seeds in their NCAA Tournament regions.
Gamecocks guard Tiffany Mitchell missed a wild 3-point attempt at the buzzer after she was forced to the wing and unable to drive to the basket.
South Carolina (34-3) rallied to take a 65-64 lead with 1:14 to play on an offensive rebound and put-back by Aleighsa Welch. However, Welch missed another shot with 32 seconds to go, and Loyd grabbed the rebound to give Notre Dame its final chance.
The Gamecocks struggled for most of the night, falling behind by 10 early. They tied the score at 36 early in the second half, and had center Alaina Coates on the foul line. However, she missed both free throws, and Notre Dame scored the next 10 points.
Loyd scored 22 points to lead Notre Dame. Forward Brianna Turner had 17, and forward Taya Reimer added 16 for the Irish.
Guard A’ja Wilson led South Carolina with 20 points. Coates scored 12, Mitchell had 11, and Welch finished with 10 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.
From the tipoff, Notre Dame looked more comfortable. The Irish, in their fifth consecutive Final Four, seemed aware of their surroundings, while South Carolina looked as if it were taking in the crowd. The Irish jumped to a quick 15-5 lead before the Gamecocks awakened.
The Gamecocks performed better on the boards in the first half but shot poorly. They hit only 33 percent for the first half (12 of 36), some 20 percent below what they were shooting on the season. And while they crept within a point at 25-24, Notre Dame was able to keep a healthy lead for most of the first half.
Notre Dame shot only 40.6 percent in the opening 20 minutes. The Irish clung to a 32-28 lead at halftime thanks to 10 each from Reimer, Turner and Loyd.
NOTES: South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was a three-time Olympic gold medalist and a five-time WNBA all-star, and she did much of it at the same time. Staley took the head coaching job at Temple while she was still playing. … South Carolina became just the third opponent in the Irish’s past 18 games to score more than 63 points. … South Carolina began the night 33-0 when outscoring opponents in the paint. … Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd struggled a bit in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, but coach Muffet McGraw didn’t seem concerned. “If anyone else had those numbers, I would have been thrilled,” McGraw said.
The Connecticut Huskies are focused on a familiar prize. They are locked in, focused, as if on a mission.
The only thing standing between them and a third consecutive women’s basketball national championship is Notre Dame in Tuesday’s final.
Connecticut announced its intentions Sunday night in an 81-58 semifinal victory over outclassed Maryland.
The Huskies (37-1) and the Irish (36-2) will meet in Amelie Arena on Tuesday to determine the champion.
Connecticut and coach Geno Auriemma are closing in on their 10th national title, and their latest victory was relatively close for only a half, if you consider a 44-33 lead close.
In the second half, however, it was all Connecticut, which ran past Maryland with ease. Huskies forward Breanna Stewart finished with 25 points, forward Morgan Tuck had 24 and guard Moriah Jefferson added 14 in the easy victory.
Center Brionna Jones paced the Terrapins with 14 points, while guards Lexie Brown and Brene Moseley had 12 apiece.
Maryland (34-3) saw its 28-game winning streak end.
For most of its decade-long run, Connecticut was defined by its runs. A team will play even with the Huskies for a while, but then it will glance up at the board and find itself trailing by 10. Soon enough, the game can get out of hand.
Sunday’s contest was no different. The teams were tied at 10 before the Huskies scored six in a row. Maryland closed within 22-19. Then another streak hit, and Connecticut jumped to a 34-21 lead.
Stewart, the acknowledged leader of the Huskies who led the team to back-to-back national titles, was all over the second run. Her 3-pointer sparked Connecticut.
UConn led in points from the paint, points off turnovers and points off the fastbreak before halftime.
Tuck paced the Huskies with 13 first-half points, while Jefferson had 11 and Stewart had 10. No Maryland player was in double figures at the break.