TAMPA — Jewell Loyd was just a freshman when she made her first trip to the Final Four three years ago. During that April weekend in New Orleans, Loyd admits she was overwhelmed by the grand scale of everything and the media attention that followed.
"You're new to this and you have so many different distractions, so you're trying to figure out, 'Am I supposed to have fun? What's the middle ground here?' " Loyd recalled. "But after a while, you kind of understand its a business here. You have to make sure you can handle both things."
As Loyd practiced at Amalie Arena on Saturday, she appeared to have a sense of calm familiarity. Playing in Tampa might be a new experience for the junior guard, but playing at this stage is not. When Notre Dame tips off against South Carolina tonight, it'll be the Irish's fifth straight NCAA Tournament semifinal.
Loyd admits that having experience at the Final Four will likely help them, but that doesn't mean the Irish (35-2) are taking the Gamecocks, who are making the program's first Final Four appearance, lightly.
South Carolina (34-2) is known for its height in the front court and a depth on the bench that could be hard to match. And though Notre Dame has been here many times, that isn't necessarily the case for many of its players.
Notre Dame starts three underclassmen, including freshman Brianna Turner, who averages 13.7 points and 7.8 rebounds. Notre Dame's youth, coach Muffet McGraw said, was something she felt could hold the team back at the beginning of the season.
"It is our goal every year (to make the Final Four)," McGraw said. "But when you lose two first-round draft picks, three starters and a ton of experience, I don't think you go into the season thinking this is our national championship team."
And yet, the Irish are in position to win the program's second national title.
Notre Dame hasn't won it all since 2001, leaving the Final Four empty-handed each of the past four times it's been. Three of those four times the Irish have made it to the national championship game.
The results for Notre Dame have varied during the past four years, but the end goal has remained the same.
And this year, the Irish hope the fifth time's the charm.
"You always just want another opportunity," Loyd said. "That's what's so powerful, just having the opportunity to do something great."
Contact Kelly Parsons at email@example.com. Follow @_kellyparsons.