SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Coach Jim Littell gave point guard Tiffany Bias a hug as she was overcome by emotions while walking off the court in her final game with Oklahoma State.
In the news conference after the Cowgirls lost 89-72 to Notre Dame on Saturday, Littell interrupted when Bias was answering a question about how determined she was to play despite an ankle injury sustained against Purdue on Monday.
"This young lady has started every game for four years for us. She's been the face of our program. She's been a leader since the day she stepped on this campus. She's taken this program to new levels, from being an NIT team to the Sweet 16, and it all falls on what this young leader has done and how she's led over the years," he said.
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.
Bias said she had been through a lot the past few years and said her teammates and coaches helped her through it all.
"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."
Bias hit the first two baskets for Oklahoma State, both 3-pointers, but the Cowgirls were already down 14-0 by the time she hit the first and Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa already had nine points on her own by the time Bias hit her second.
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 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 fourth 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.
Bias wasn't slowed by an ankle injury, 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.
McGraw was asked if she thinks this season's Irish might be better than last year's team because the players are no longer looking for Skylar Diggins to take over.
"I think we're a good team, but it remains to be seen if we are better than last year," she said.