Notre Dame women’s basketball: Irish cling to dream of ring

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- In a year of change for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team, one thing remains constant — striving to capture a national title.

Notre Dame owns three consecutive trips to the Final Four, but hasn’t been able to hoist the national championship trophy in those three trips.

A return to the Final Four, and this time coming back with the trophy, is a burning motivation for the 2013-2014 Irish.

“I’ve been to three Final Fours and we haven’t won one,” Notre Dame senior Natalie Achonwa said. “It’s like going to the ball every year and not getting the crown.

“I think that adds a sense of urgency to me and the other two seniors (Kayla McBride and Ariel Braker) and the entire team, because they know how badly we want this.”

Achonwa said that winning a national championship is the driving force that will spark the Irish, who have been ranked No. 10 in the ESPN preseason poll.

“By far, it’s the thing that keeps you up at night,” Achonwa said. “It’s the thing that keeps you going at practice. It’s getting that ring. Being able to be there again in the Final Four is definitely our goal this year.”

McBride said that the experience of three consecutive Final Fours will serve the Irish well.

“Going to three Final Fours the past three seasons helps a lot,” McBride said. “There are three of us who have done that. We’ve learned from the Natalie Novosels, the Devereaux Peters, the Brittany Mallorys, the Skylar Diggins. We’re taking that with us.

“The things that we learned and all the hard work that we put in to get to those three Final Fours, we’re bringing it to the underclassmen that we have now. After losing in the Final Four last year, I’m more motivated than ever.”

Notre Dame leaves the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference this season. The biggest change, though, will be for Irish fans to get used to seeing Notre Dame without No. 4 on the court, South Bend’s Skylar Diggins.

Diggins, a unanimous All-American, graduated from Notre Dame with the all-time school record for scoring (2,357 points) and steals (381). The former South Bend Washington High School star is the only Notre Dame women’s basketball player to score at least 2,000 points and have at least 500 rebounds and 500 assists.

Notre Dame, though, returns four starters, McBride, Achonwa, Braker and Jewell Loyd. Freshman point guard Lindsay Allen will replace Diggins at the point.

“I’m really excited about this year, trying to put the pieces together,” McGraw said. “

“We’re starting over in some ways, but with four returning starters and a veteran group ... it’s going to be an interesting team. I feel like we are a young veteran team. We certainly have some experience, but we have a lot of question marks to fill in. Hopefully, another week or two of practice, and we’ll have a better idea of where we are.”

Allen won’t be the only freshman making an impact.

Taya Reimer, an Indianapolis native who starred at Hamilton Southeastern, is a 6-3 post player. The increased presence in the middle means the Irish will shift away from their four-guard lineup that they’ve used in the past.

“I think it allows us to change defensively, to do some different things, press in different ways, maybe play more zone because of our size,” McGraw said. “The Princeton offense is a perimeter, guard-oriented type of offense, but with these guys inside, we’re looking to put in some new things so we can really take advantage of our size inside.”

Notre Dame will have a strong bench, featuring guards Michaela Mabrey and Madison Cable.

“I think we’re still looking for our identity,” McGraw said. “I don’t think we’re exactly sure what our M.O. is going to be. What are our strengths? We know some of them individually, but as a team, what is really going to be the strength of this group?

“You forge a new identity every year, no matter how many people you lose. This year, with the chemistry and the leadership, there was a passing of the torch.”

Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa takes a shot during last season's game against Cincinnati at Purcell Pavilion.