NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Kayla McBride seemingly did whatever she wanted, enjoying 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's championship.
In one of the most impressive games of her career, McBride scored 28 points to lead Notre Dame to an 87-61 win against Maryland Sunday night.
"She was truly special," coach Muffet McGraw said. "She was having fun out there and that was the key. She was hitting shots from all over."
It's the third time in four years Notre Dame (37-0) has been in the title game. The Irish are looking for their first title since winning 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'. We're going to go in and look at the film and be ready for the game."
Notre Dame played without senior Natalie Achonwa, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament in the regional final victory against Baylor. The entire team wore shirts in warmups with Achonwa's No. 11 and the 6-foot-3 forward's nickname "Ace" on the back. She helped her team warm up, passing the ball and offering words of encouragement.
McGraw, who was The Associated Press coach of the year, was concerned coming into the game about her team's ability to rebound against the bigger Terrapins without Achonwa. Her team practiced all week on boxing out and not allowing second shots.
It worked. The Irish dominated the Terrapins (28-7) on the boards, outrebounding them in record fashion. Notre Dame had a 50-21 advantage, including a 19-4 mark on the offensive end. It was the widest rebounding margin ever in a Final Four game, shattering the previous mark of 19 set by Louisiana Tech in 1989. Maryland broke the national semifinals record for fewest rebounds in a game of 25 set by Minnesota in 2004.
"We thought the game would be won on the boards and I think it was," McGraw said. "To hold them to four offensive rebounds was amazing. We did a great job boxing out and really limited their rebounds. Kayla McBride got us off to a phenomenal start."
Said Maryland star Alyssa Thomas: "They wanted it more. They beat us at our own game."
Notre Dame also befuddled the Terrapins on defense, forcing them into turnovers and poor shots with ever-changing defenses. Thomas, who finished with 14 points, was constantly double-teamed and rarely got good looks at the basket.
Thomas ended her career as the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder. She waited four years to make the Final Four. Coach Brenda Frese took her out with 1:33 left, giving her star a long hug as she headed to the bench.
This was the Terrapins' first trip to the Final Four since winning the championship in 2006. They were intent on crashing the party and ruining Notre Dame's perfect season.
"Obviously the better team won," Frese said. "Notre Dame did a terrific job. They took advantage and set the tone from the first possession. We really struggled to have an answer for [Jewell] Loyd and McBride."