TAMPA, Fla. — Notre Dame keeps finding ways to win. One more victory and the Irish will be national champions again.
A young team that lost three starters from last year’s squad is back in the NCAA title game after fighting off a gallant comeback by Final Four newcomer South Carolina 66-65 on Sunday night.
All-American Jewell Loyd scored 22 points as the Irish (36-2) advanced to the championship game for the fourth time in five years, but it took a basket from an unlikely source to survive a scoring drought that lasted more than seven minutes down the stretch.
Madison Cable’s putback for her only points of the night put the Irish in front for good.
“I was just crashing any way to try to get a rebound, and it kind of just bounced right where I was,” Cable said. “I turned around and had an open shot and took it. Luckily, it went in.”
Loyd said no one boxed out Cable on her game-winning basket, adding: “She’s done it all year. She’s the MVP.”
Now, Notre Dame will face two-time defending champion Connecticut (37-1) Tuesday night in a rematch of last year’s title game.
The Irish ran out to double-digit leads against South Carolina, but the Gamecocks wouldn’t go away.
“We didn’t rebound, missed a bunch of shots,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “Just a great basketball game. We went to Jewell. She had to do everything. Everyone contributed.”
Notre Dame is looking to win it all for the first time since McGraw led them to their only national title in 2001.
South Carolina (34-3) overcame a 12-point, first-half deficit and did it again in the closing minutes. The feisty Gamecocks used a 13-0 run to take their only lead on Aleighsa Welch’s offensive stickback with 1:12 remaining.
“It came down to them making a play when they needed to make a play and we didn’t,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said.
Brianna Turner scored 17 points and grabbed eight rebounds before fouling out for Notre Dame. Taya Reimer had 16 points for Notre Dame.
Freshman A’ja Wilson came off the bench to lead South Carolina with 20 points. She scored 10 straight for the Gamecocks at one point in the second half to keep her resilient team within striking distance.
Notre Dame led 64-52 with 7:51 to go. The Irish missed eight straight shots before Cable wiped out South Carolina’s short-lived lead. South Carolina All-American Tiffany Mitchell’s off-balance 3-point attempt bounced high off the backboard as time ran out on the best season in school history.
Mitchell fell to the court in dejection and was helped up by teammates.
“They were making it hard for me to try and find a shot. And when I tried to pass it, they deflected it,” said Mitchell, who finished with 11 points on 5-of-11 shooting.
The Gamecocks hurt themselves, going 7 for 16 from the foul line, and missing six of seven in the closing minutes while they were trying to catch up.
“That’s key. We left a lot of points at the free throw-line,” Staley said. “But you know, still we overcame that to put ourselves in a position to take the lead.”
Notre Dame lost to Connecticut in a matchup of unbeaten teams in last year’s title game. The Irish came up short against Texas A&M in 2011 and Baylor in 2012.
“It’s surreal right now, can’t believe that we’re here,” Loyd said of advancing to Tuesday night’s title game. “Glad we played the early game and can get some rest.”
South Carolina looked like a Final Four newcomer early, falling behind 15-3 in the first five minutes of the game. The Gamecocks settling and getting a pair of layups from Alaina Coates during a 12-4 surge that helped them get back in the game.
Staley has spent the past seven seasons transforming South Carolina from a struggling program into a national contender that spent much of this season ranked No. 1 in the country. The former Virginia star, who participated in the national semifinals three times as a player joined Kim Mulkey as the only women to play and coach in the Final Four, and she drew on personal experience to try to prepare her team for what encounter during its trip.
The Gamecocks began to solve the multiple defensive looks Notre Dame threw at them, with Coates inflicting damage inside and Mitchell and Bianca Cuevas picking up the pace of the game once Irish guard Lindsay Allen left the game with two fouls. Wilson’s jumper trimmed South Carolina deficit to 25-24, but Notre Dame wouldn’t crack.
The Irish found a way to advance despite not getting any points from Allen, who missed all five shots she took before fouling out. The sophomore guard scored 23 in Notre Dame victory over Baylor in the Oklahoma City Regional final.