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Notre Dame women’s coach Muffet McGraw first admired Jewell Loyd’s athletic talents on a tennis court, not on a basketball court.
The daughter of a former semi-professional tennis player, Loyd, the leading scorer for the second-ranked Fighting Irish, twice carried a proficient serve-and-volley game into the Illinois state high school tournament.
“I actually was better at tennis than I was at basketball,” Loyd said.
But basketball, not tennis, is her passion, something McGraw figured out after seeing Loyd’s choice of apparel when the coach traveled to the Chicago area for her initial recruiting visit.
“She was the only player out there in basketball shorts,” McGraw recalled Sunday. “Everybody else had a skirt on, so she was easy to pick out.”
Loyd will be easy to pick out at the University of Toledo’s Savage Arena when Notre Dame (33-0) clashes with Arizona State (23-9) in the NCAA women’s tournament at 6:30 p.m. today.
On a team stocked with all-everything talent, the sophomore scoring guard Loyd has emerged this season as the headliner, displaying a degree of athleticism never seen before at Notre Dame in McGraw’s 27 seasons as coach.
“There’s no question she’s the best athlete we’ve ever had,” said McGraw, who won a national title with the Irish in 2001. “She does some phenomenal things with and without the ball that nobody has ever been able to do before at Notre Dame.”
Loyd, who is only the third Notre Dame player to score 1,000 points as a sophomore, extended her streak scoring in double digits to 38 games Saturday in a 51-point opening-round trouncing of Robert Morris. Logging just 20 minutes, she totaled 15 points and seven rebounds.
Loyd, the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament MVP, leads the nation’s second-ranked scoring offense with 18.4 points a game. Her 81 offensive rebounds are the most for the Irish, and she is only the team’s ninth-tallest player.
“Can she dunk?" cracked Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne. “I mean, she can really get up. She plays above people. When I saw her in high school on the club circuit, I thought she was the best player in the country. First time I saw her I remember saying, ‘Who is that kid?’”
Loyd, the fourth-ranked recruit in 2012 per HoopGurlz’s rankings, led Niles West to its first sectional title in 30 years. She gave up tennis after her sophomore year to concentrate on hoops and ended up topping 3,000 points scored.
Tennis, according to Loyd, “was looking pretty good for me, but my passion was in basketball.” A soccer standout, Loyd quit that sport after her freshman year.
Most comfortable playing the net, Loyd’s vertical leap foiled foes’ strategies to lob the ball over her head. She attributes her foot work in basketball to fast reflexes needed in the doubles game.
McGraw believes the “intensity and focus” necessary to excel in tennis has increased Loyd’s attentiveness on the hardwood.
Asked if her Irish teammates challenge Loyd to a friendly game of tennis, Natalie Achonwa laughed and said, “I don’t want those problems.”
To break up the monotony of a season now six months old, McGraw plans time for her team to goof off at practice. Among the fun and games are a rubber chicken toss and Wiffle ball, the latter proving Loyd’s athleticism has boundaries.
“She’s pretty good in Wiffle ball, but she isn’t the best,” McGraw said.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.