NASHVILLE - Kayla McBride seemingly did whatever she wanted and enjoyed herself while she did it.
The All-American senior guard shed defenders with behind-the-back dribbles and quick cross-overs before scoring. She set the tone, refusing to let Notre Dame's pursuit of a perfect season end, and her Irish teammates followed her lead into Tuesday night's national championship game.
In one of her most impressive games, McBride scored 28 to lead Notre Dame to an 87-61 win over Maryland in the semifinals Sunday.
"She was truly special," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "She was having fun out there, and that was the key. She was hitting shots from all over."
The Irish (37-0) will play UConn (39-0), a women's title matchup of undefeated teams for the first time in NCAA history. Though the Irish are in the title game for the third time in four years, they last won it all in 2001.
"It means a lot as a senior," McBride said. "I'm so proud of this team. We went through a lot of adversity, especially after losing 'Ace.'"
Notre Dame played without senior forward Natalie Achonwa, who tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the region final victory over Baylor.
McGraw was concerned about rebounding against the bigger Terrapins without Achonwa, 6 feet 3. Her team practiced all week on boxing out. It worked. The Irish dominated the Terrapins (28-7) on the boards, outrebounding them 50-21 overall and 19-4 on the offensive end. It was the widest rebounding margin in a Final Four game, topping the 19 by Louisiana Tech in 1989.
"We thought the game would be won on the boards, and I think it was," McGraw said.
Said Maryland star Alyssa Thomas: "They wanted it more. They beat us at our own game."
Thomas, who ended her career as the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder, was constantly double-teamed and scored 14. She had waited four years to make the Final Four. Coach Brenda Frese took her out with 1:33 left, giving her star a hug.
UConn rolls to berth
NASHVILLE - Connecticut is back in a familiar position: undefeated and playing for the national championship.
It will go for an unprecedented ninth title after Breanna Stewart scored 18 and the Huskies advanced with a 75-56 semifinal win against Stanford.
It wasn't easy early, though, for the Huskies (39-0), who eventually did their part to set up the title showdown between undefeated teams.
"It wouldn't be any fun if you didn't beat teams that were any good," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of the matchup with Notre Dame. "I think women's basketball needs rivalries like this, teams that aspire to be great and want to win championships."
The Huskies also won their 45th straight game after overcoming a sluggish start. Stewart, the Associated Press player of the year, missed her first four shots, and UConn was up just 28-24 at halftime. But UConn settled down and put the Cardinal away in the second half, outscoring it 47-32.
Stanford (33-4) lost its third national semifinal since reaching the 2010 title game against UConn, which the Huskies won. All-American Chiney Ogwumike finished with 15 points.
"Their size, when they went big, their size is really disruptive," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "Probably more than anything, they have very skilled players, play very well together."