SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Natalie Achonwa gave the home fans plenty to cheer about.
The senior forward helped Notre Dame race out to a 14-0 lead and cruise to an easy win, ending Oklahoma State’s hopes of winning its first NCAA tournament semifinal regional game.
Achonwa finished with 23 points, a career-high five blocked shots and two steals in the 89-72 victory on Saturday, yet that isn’t what impressed Cowgirls coach Jim Littell about the 6-3 senior forward. He said she’s most dangerous when passing.
“You turn your head and she’s going to zip one right by your ear and hit somebody for an open layup or a two-footer,” he said. “When you have the ability to score on the box but you also have the ability to beat people with the pass, it makes you a special player.”
The most impressive of Achonwa’s six assists was a behind-the-back pass around the back of an Oklahoma State defender for an easy basket inside by Madison Cable to give the Irish a 40-24 lead.
“It was just easy to find her with everyone so hawking and staring at you,” Achonwa said. “She just made a great cut and was open in the paint.”
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said the game plan was to try to go inside against the Cowgirls and the Irish guards found Achonwa.
“Just a fabulous game. She got us off to a great start,” McGraw said.
McGraw also credited the sellout crowd of 8,774 with getting the Irish going.
“There’s no question when we came out to see that sea of green and to hear the excitement and feel the electricity. What a phenomenal atmosphere for a game,” she said. “I thought the roof might come off the crowd was so loud.”
Notre Dame (35-0) is a victory away from its fourth straight Final Four berth, while the Cowgirls (25-9) fell to 0-3 in regional semifinals.
Notre Dame had a season-high 10 blocked shots, outscored the Cowgirls 42-34 in the paint and had a 46-36 advantage in rebounds.
“Their transition really killed,” Oklahoma State guard Tiffany Bias said.
Bias wasn’t slowed by an ankle injury suffered against Purdue, hitting a pair of 3-pointers early to end Oklahoma State’s scoreless streak and finishing with 17 points and 11 assists. LaShawn Jones added 16 points and three blocked shots and Brittany Atkins had 13 points.
Jewell Loyd had 20 points and 12 rebounds and Kayla McBride added 18 points as the top-seeded Irish won at home for the 27th straight game. They will seek to extend that streak Monday against Baylor (32-4), which is 4-0 all-time against the Irish and the last opponent to win at Purcell Pavilion on Dec. 5, 2012.
For the Cowgirls it was a disappointing end to the best three-year stretch in school history, winning 69 games that included a WNIT title in 2012 and back-to-back berths in the NCAA tournament. All that came after the program was devastated 2 1/2 years ago by a fatal plane crash that killed coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna during a recruiting trip.
Littell said Bias was a key reason for Oklahoma State’s recent success.
“She’s been a leader since the day she stepped on this campus. She’s taken this program to new levels, from being a WNIT team to the Sweet 16, and it all falls on what this young leader has done and how she’s led over the year,” he said. “I’m very, very proud of what she’s accomplished.”
Bias said she had been through a lot the past few years and said her teammates and coaches helped her through it.
“They were there on my hardest and there on my happiest days. They really stayed right by my side no matter what,” she said. “That’s what Oklahoma State really has, is a family. I think we’ve grown as people and we’ve grown as players. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
McGraw was asked if she thinks this season’s Irish might be better than last year’s team because the players are no longer looking for Skylar Diggins to take over.
“We have a lot of people who can come in and have a big night. When you have three players you count on every night, one of them is going to have a big night,” she said.
She added she believes Diggins’ spirit still lives in the team.
“I think you see that in Jewell, Ace and Kayla and all the people that played with her, she said. “I think we’re a good team, but it remains to be seen if we are better than last year.”