SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame's entire season has been an exercise in proving there is life without a familiar face on the court.
So why not make the final step in getting back to the Final Four about exactly the same thing.
No Skylar Diggins was no problem for Notre Dame as it piled up 35 consecutive wins to reach a regional final.
No Kayla McBride for most of the first half of Monday's 88-69 victory over Baylor? No problem for the Fighting Irish. Not with Natalie Achonwa going to work. Not with Jewell Loyd stepping squarely into the spotlight she has auditioned for all season with 30 points.
No Achonwa for much of the second half? That will be a problem if it lingers beyond Monday night, but it wasn't enough to save the nets after this game. Not with Loyd around. Not with Ariel Braker making plays and Lindsay Allen avoiding mistakes.
We ponder what the Fighting Irish are not at our own peril. Because they continue to prove that what they are is pretty special.
"When Skylar came in, I think people expected that we would be in the Final Four," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "And then when Skylar graduated, I don't think anyone expected that we'd be back in the Final Four. So I think it says a lot about this team, the mental toughness and the grit, that they got together and had this unbelievable season."
That season seemed like it might be in serious trouble when a referee's whistle blew, in what would prove to be a recurring theme, and McBride picked up her second offensive foul in the game's first four minutes. As much as the Fighting Irish have a triumvirate of primary scorers in McBride, Loyd and Achonwa, it's the senior guard from Erie, Pa., who time and again has come up with her best performances in the team's biggest games this season.
Now Baylor had Odyssey Sims and a four-point lead in front of a restless crowd that suddenly included McBride in a front-row seat next to Notre Dame's assistant coaches.
Enter Loyd. In the span of a little more than four minutes, Notre Dame outscored Baylor 14-0 and took a 31-21 lead. The lead grew to as many as 13 points late in the half and shrank to as few as five points on multiple occasions in the second, but Baylor never got within a single possession the rest of the night. Achonwa got the run started, but Loyd scored eight points in that stretch. She started it with a putback, then completed a three-point play in traffic that gave the team the lead and brought the crowd to its feet. Moments later, she drove left on Sims, stopped on a dime and put up a step-back jumper that drew a foul on the lunging Sims.
McBride called the halftime lead the difference in the game, and Loyd largely provided it.
"We really needed her to take control when Kayla got the two quick fouls," McGraw said. "A big part of our game plan was going inside to Ace, and then Jewell was able to just get some shots. She made some long shots -- we were trying to get her to go to the basket a little bit more, but she really carried us in the first half."
Just as she did in the closest call Notre Dame had all season. Back on Jan. 27 at Maryland, with Achonwa and McBride again forced to the bench with early foul trouble, Loyd put the team on her back and scored 20 points in the first half. She went toe-to-toe and then some with Alyssa Thomas that night, just as she did this night against Sims.