CHICAGO — Notre Dame heated up just in time to earn a return trip to the Final Four.
Monday night’s 84-68 win over second-seeded Stanford at Wintrust Arena propelled the defending national champions to another showdown with longtime rival Connecticut. That will take place on Friday night in Tampa, where Baylor and Oregon will play in the other national semifinal of the women’s NCAA tournament.
Jackie Young, shaking off a 1-for-8 start, hit four straight shots during a third-quarter burst that proved decisive. After trailing by nine early in the second half, Notre Dame closed out the third quarter on a 19-6 run.
Young, a junior guard, had all but six of her game-high 25 points after the break as the Irish secured a seventh trip to the Final Four in the past nine seasons.
“We just had to stay together, play our game and do what we do best, and that’s go in transition,” Young said. “I was getting to the basket the whole time. I just wasn’t hitting shots in the beginning.”
The key, she said, was “just keeping an aggressive mindset and attacking the basket. I knew eventually shots were going to fall.”
Top-seeded Notre Dame (34-3) shot 71 percent in the second half after struggling from the field early. The Fighting Irish entered with the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense (89.2 points) and No. 2 field-goal percentage offense (.518).
Meeting on the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years, Notre Dame and Stanford slogged through a cold-shooting first half. The teams combined to miss 20 of their first 24 shots before the Cardinal heated up to shoot 57 percent in the second quarter.
Australian center Alanna Smith, who hit the go-ahead layup with 22.8 seconds left when these teams met two years ago, was held to 14 points for Stanford.
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After blowing a 16-point second-half lead two years ago and rallying from 15 down only to fall short in Arike Ogunbowale’s freshman year, Notre Dame made sure to finish the job this time.
“We knew we had to get our stuff together,” Young said. “We had 20 minutes left. We just had to play a little bit harder. We just changed our mindset in the second half.”
In Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw and Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, the final Elite Eight matchup of the women’s NCAA tournament pitted Hall of Fame coaches with nearly 2,000 combined wins over 77 combined years. Those totals included a combined 1,747 wins, 65 years and four national championships at their current schools.
Notre Dame is seeking to become the sport’s first repeat champion, non-UConn division, since Tennessee in the springs of 2007 and 2008. Stanford has won two NCAA titles, but the last came in 1992.
Follow the Indy Star’s Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.