SOUTH BEND— Kayla McBride has a knack for coming up big in Notre Dame’s toughest games.
She scored a career-high 21 points in a 1-point win at Connecticut in January, topped that with 26 points in a triple overtime victory over the Huskies in South Bend earlier this month to clinch the Big East regular-season title, and then had 23 points against UConn in the league’s tournament title game and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. She has scored at least 15 points in 11 of Notre Dame’s 12 games against ranked opponents this season.
“I think my teammates just depend on me more in those games,” McBride said. “I feel like I have to be at my best. I try to be at my best every game, but when we’re in top competition I love to be at the top of my game.”
It wasn’t that way all season, though. Last season McBride was in more of a supporting role, a player who would occasionally provide an offensive spark and who was one of the team’s best defenders. Coming into this season, she knew she had to become more of a dependable scorer.
The 5-11 junior slumped in midseason, making 25 percent of her shots during a four-game streak when she averaged 8.5 points a game. The low-point came at Tennessee, when she was 4-of-18 shooting for nine points.
“I think I was trying to do a little too much, kind of playing outside myself,” she said. “I was taking shots I wasn’t comfortable taking.”
McGraw believes McBride was putting too much pressure on herself.
“She wasn’t really relaxed and letting the game come to her,” McGraw said. “She was trying too hard and mentally over thought things. So I think it was good for her to just relax and let the game come to her.”
McBride bounced back the following game against Cincinnati, by making her first seven shots and scoring 17 of her 19 points in the first half and has been steady ever since, averaging 16 points a game on 46.7 percent shooting. She has made 81 of 88 free throws this year, or 92 percent of her attempts.
“Her mid-range jumper is unstoppable. I think that’s her bread and butter,” McGraw said. “She’s going to the basket more. I’d like her to be getting to the free-throw line a little bit more than she is right now. But I think her ability to put the ball on the floor and create her own shot has really improved.”
She has been at the top of her game for the past month, scoring 22 points or more in six of Notre Dame’s last eight games, including a career-high 28 points against Iowa on Tuesday. She had 24 points in the first half and finished with a career-high four 3-pointers.
McGraw said the Irish haven’t been trying to get the ball to McBride more, she’s just making her shots and point guard Skylar Diggins has been finding her more because of it.
“We’re a team that takes what we get. Somebody gets the hot hand early we stick with them and try to get them the ball as much as we can. That’s where Skylar’s so great. She sees what’s happening in the game, sees who is open, who has the hot hand and she wants to run stuff for them.”
The Irish (33-1) have won a school-record 28 straight games heading into their game Sunday against 12th-seeded Kansas (20-13) in Norfolk, Va.
McGraw attributes McBride’s late-season success to growing confidence after being overshadowed by some upper classmen last season.
“I think she feels like, ‘This is my time,’” McGraw said. “She wants a bigger role and she’s stepping up and taking it.”