Notre Dame, Baylor earn dominating victories

TOM COYNE Associated Press Published:

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) -- 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 fifth 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."

BAYLOR 90, KENTUCKY 72

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It's hard to believe that with all that Baylor lost, Odyssey Sims has the Lady Bears one victory away from reaching the Final Four again.

Sims scored 25 points, including her 1,000th this season, to lead No. 2 seed Baylor to a 90-72 win over third-seeded Kentucky on Saturday in the Sweet 16.

The victory came a year after the Lady Bears were eliminated in the regional semifinals by Louisville in one of the biggest upsets in women's basketball history. Baylor's now back in the regional final for the fourth time in five years.

This might be the most unexpected of the trips as the Lady Bears lost two-time AP Player of the Year Brittney Griner and four other seniors.

"With what we lost people didn't know what to expect," Baylor senior Makenzie Robertson said. "That game was motivation to prove people wrong. It means the world to get this far."

Coach Kim Mulkey didn't put any pressure on this young team during the season.

"We didn't talk about it being an Elite Eight team," she said. "We definitely wanted be in the NCAA tournament and let's see how good we are in the course of the year. I watched us get better and better. I knew we'd go pretty deep in this tournament."

Sims has been the key. She became only the second player to reach that milestone in a single season. She is 41 points behind Jackie Stiles' record of 1,062 for one year set in 2001.

Baylor's sensational senior guard had 47 points the last time the Lady Bears and Wildcats played. That was one of the most exciting games in the history of women's basketball. The Wildcats came away with a 133-130 four-overtime victory back in December.

This one fell far short of matching that thriller as Sims and Baylor put the game away by the half.

"You see how much we improved since the last time we played Kentucky," Mulkey said. "We have two freshmen posts who almost finished with a double-double."

Nina Davis finished with 20 points and eight rebounds while classmate Khadijiah Cave added a career-high 18 points and nine rebounds. Sophomore Niya Johnson had 11 points and 11 assists.

Now the Lady Bears (32-4) will face either Notre Dame or Oklahoma State in the regional final on Monday night.

Sims got off to a slow start, missing her first six shots before heating up by making 8 of her final 10 to finish the half. A steal and layup, a sequence she's done many times in her stellar career, with 12:40 left in the first half got her to 1,000.

"I had no idea. I knew I would reach it. I wasn't keeping up with it and just playing basketball," Sims said. "Records and awards don't mean anything right now, us making a run in this tournament and trying to go far is what matters."

She followed up the milestone play with a long pass to Davis for an easy score on the next play, pumping her left arm after the freshman finished off the play. That was one of her seven assists on the day.

Kentucky hung around and only trailed 28-24 after Makayla Epps' layup with 6:26 left in the half. That would be the last basket for the Wildcats until DeNesha Stallworth hit a layup with 9 seconds left. In between Sims took over. She scored eight points during a 17-2 run that blew the game open. Baylor led 49-32 at the half.

Kentucky missed nine layups in the first half and never got closer than 12 points down in the second half.

"I thought we were doing a good job at some things, wish we could have made some of those layups and the complexion of game would have been different," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said.

Jennifer O'Neill, who had 43 points in the earlier game, had a rough afternoon. She missed all 12 of her shots and finished with just eight points -- all on free throws.

"Leading scorer goes 0 for 12, not a real good recipe for moving forward in this kind of environment in the tournament," Mitchell said. "It's hard to fathom how that kid can go 0 for 12. She didn't try to do that. I thought she took some bad shots at times, but some were really good. They just didn't go."

Stallworth scored 19 points to lead Kentucky (26-9).

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