- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- A grumble of WNBA coaches, or whatever the correct collective name is for the coaching equivalent of a pride of lions or murder of crows, descended on the Comcast Center on Monday night. The first and only scheduled meeting between No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 8 Maryland offered an opportunity for one-stop scouting just a short drive from three major airports.
The players they saw aren't yet professionals, but three of them played at a level beyond their college setting.
Alyssa Thomas and Kayla McBride will be pros soon enough.
The wait for Jewell Loyd, on the other hand, might soon begin to feel like an eternity.
When it was over Monday night, Notre Dame had its second road win against a highly ranked opponent in eight days, the 87-83 win against Maryland coming on the heels of last week's win at Tennessee. As in that game in Knoxville, Notre Dame had to come from behind to win in College Park, but this time only because it first squandered a 22-point lead.
That last fact stood out to Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw immediately after the game.
"If it's possible to be disappointed after a loss, I'd say that's how I'm feeling right now," McGraw began, unintentionally substituting a defeat for the victory her team in fact earned. "We just completely lost our poise, which is so unusual for us. We've got a 20-point lead in the first half with two of our best players on the bench and couldn't sustain it in the second half. They got the momentum going early, and Thomas was unbelievable. She was fantastic. I don't think anyone has had a performance like that against us in a long time, and she was just phenomenal.
"We made some big shots when we had to. We certainly weren't going to get any stops. That was the only way we were going to win, was to outscore them."
And what a show it produced in the process.
Thomas, McBride and Loyd combined for 80 points on the night. They combined to hit 29 field goals and 19 free throws. The other 16 players who spent time on the court hit 35 field goals and 15 free throws.
Best of them all was Loyd, who set a career high with 31 points and added seven rebounds, six assists and two steals. She and McBride evenly divvied up 14 of their team's first 16 points, the senior showing off the body control and midrange shooting stroke that should put her in the top half of the WNBA draft's first round this spring. But when McBride eventually joined Natalie Achonwa on the bench with first-half foul trouble, Loyd had the stage to herself. She knew her lines. The sophomore scored 20 points before halftime and did it with a variety of moves and skills that had a discerning audience impressed.
"I mean, the kid is really good," muttered one of the pro coaches to nobody in particular after Loyd took a pass from a prone Ariel Braker and in one motion whipped it half the length of the floor to an open teammate for a layup.
Loyd checks in at a modest 5 feet, 10 inches, but with Achonwa in foul trouble, Taya Reimer struggling and Braker expending most of her energy on the defensive end, the guard was also her team's best post player for much of the game. She averaged 12.5 points per game as a freshman a season ago, her athleticism producing points as needed to complement McBride, Achonwa and Skylar Diggins. But there was nothing complementary about the way she went about producing points Monday night, or, indeed, much of this season as the team's leading scorer.
"She's able to score around the basket and get to the free throw line more," McGraw said of the improvement in her second season. "She didn't do that as much last year. I mean, she can get her shot a lot of different ways, but we really want her to score and take advantage of a defender. … We wanted to go right at her. We were trying to pick on her and get her on the block and make her defend. So Jewell was just incredibly effective on the block."
Maryland was able to keep the ball out of Loyd's hands at times in the second half, and she added some turnovers of her own to the general sloppiness when she did get it. But before McBride hit a long, clutch jumper with the shot clock winding down to make it a two-possession game with 11 seconds remaining, it was Loyd who went back to work in the paint and scored seven points in a matter of 81 seconds to keep her team in front in the closing minutes. She drove and scored, She posted and scored. She tried to catch and shoot in one motion on an inbounds lob, and when she missed, she finished the rebound.
"I'm not really a post-up player; I actually don't really like being on the post," Loyd said of her offseason emphasis back home in Chicago. "But watching my favorite player Kobe [Bryant] and how he works the ball, I like the facing up and some of that. So, like, during the offseason, it's just working with post players. This summer, I got to see [Elena] Delle Donne, who is a great post player and knows how to work the post. I usually just watch what she does and try to copy it later, when she's not watching. I just really try to stay aggressive around the basket and use my athleticism to help me make shots."
And this was Loyd with a knee brace on her right knee for the first time, the result of a sprain she picked up late in last week's win at Tennessee that forced her to miss the team's subsequent game against Miami. She said she tried out the brace a few times to get a feel for it but that, "You love the game so much, you really don't think about other stuff."
After Notre Dame jumped to its sizable lead in the first half, in part because McBride and Loyd jumped to a sizable lead on Thomas, Maryland's All-American responded as only she can.
Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch will bring "Beast Mode" to the East Coast for the Super Bowl, but basketball fans around College Park are used to seeing Thomas put on her own version. McGraw said the Fighting Irish wanted to deny her the ball. They couldn't. They wanted to front her. She drew three-point play after three-point play. They wanted to make her go right. She went left.
She scored 10 points in the first four minutes of the second half and finished with 29 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. The play that stood out as much as any was when she found herself matched one-on-one with Loyd in the post late in the second half and instead of trying to prove a point, made a quick pass to an open teammate on the other side of the lane for a basket.
Thomas is unique at the college level, an undersized power forward who often plays point guard and can dial up a ferocity all her own. That is why it's so difficult for people at the next level to know where she fits.
Do the skills that made her so unstoppable Monday night translate?
"Yes and no," New York Liberty coach and general manager Bill Laimbeer hedged from his seat Monday. "Hard-working players always are successful. To what degree -- her size is a limiting factor. She's not a great, big power player, so she has to outwork the bigger players in the WNBA. Can she play the small forward? That's open for debate. That's what we all talk about."
We will see where Thomas and McBride fit at the next level soon enough. We will wonder where Loyd does for two more seasons.
What was clear Monday night was there were three players on the court who pushed each other to a level only they could reach.
"You always want the challenge," Loyd said. "Alyssa Thomas is a great player, I mean, unbelievable. What she does is amazing for her team. You feed off that. You have K-Mac on your team and you're like, 'All right, let's go; let's match her.' We also know we've got to stop her as well. But we just want to get the job done any way we can."
Outscoring them worked this time. And it made for one heck of a show.
In the end, Notre Dame walked away with its second big road win in a week. But to get there, Notre Dame’s Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd and Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas pushed each other to a level only they could reach.