Loyd leads Notre Dame to Nashville

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.

"I think her preparation, her light bulb that clicks on is before the game starts," Notre Dame assistant coach Niele Ivey said. "I don't know what the word is -- besides her being amazing -- but she knows when she has to be a scorer for us. She's very comfortable in that role. I feel like she does a really good job of preparing herself before to be in a big game like this."

McGraw said Purcell Pavilion and the sellout crowd within was as loud as she could remember Monday night. From not even 10 feet away, it was at times impossible to hear Notre Dame defenders whose facial contortions made it clear they were screaming as they called out the screens Baylor players set for Sims on the perimeter.

This wasn't an environment for the meek of heart, regardless of their years. This wasn't a game you prepared for Sunday afternoon. You got ready for this one a long time ago.

There weren't any roars of approval when McBride and Loyd used to work out together in the practice gym the summer before Loyd's freshman year, just the squeak of sneakers on wood, the echo of a bouncing ball, and the labored breathing of two players competing in shooting contests or testing each other in games of one-on-one. They were getting ready for a season in which both would still be understudies to Diggins, but they were also getting ready for a night like Monday.

"She was just so athletic, and she wanted to get better," McBride recalled. "That was something that stood out to me. As a freshman, your work ethic, you don't really know what it's going to be like -- maybe she thinks she's good or whatever. But she was willing to work hard. She knew she could do more. She knew she could be great."

In some ways, no matter the demands on Loyd to produce, it's almost easier for her to play the role she fills this season than the one she filled a season ago. She was great as a freshman, earning national honors as the best newcomer in the country, but she was a complementary piece. That is not her natural mindset.

In the moments before the start of the second half, as players and referees waited for the all-clear from television, Loyd stood by herself in a corner of the court and stared off in the distance. Just before the ball was put in play, Achonwa caught her eye from the other side of the court and made a hand gesture. Both grinned for a brief second.

"We just saw that I had a smaller guard on me," Loyd recounted in reference to Baylor's Niya Johnson. "So we were just looking at each other like, 'Hey, it's go-time,' kind of looking at each other like, 'They can't guard us; it's now or never.' We just looked at each other, and that's kind of the first time we ever did that."

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