Notre Dame women's basketball: ND missing key players in exhibition

Curt Rallo

Depth has been thin for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team the past few seasons, especially at the post position.

This season, the Fighting Irish brought in three freshmen frontliners, 6-foot-3 Taya Reimer, 6-4 Diamond Thompson, and 6-3 Kristina Nelson.

But as the Irish gear up for their exhibition game on the Purcell Pavilion court at 7 p.m. (ET) on Wednesday against California (Pa.), their depth has taken a serious hit. California (Pa.) is an NCAA Division II school that competes in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.

Natalie Achonwa, a 6-3 senior who averaged 13.8 points and 9.5 rebounds last season, may be sidelined for as many as six-to-eight weeks with a torn meniscus. Achonwa missed nearly three weeks of the beginning of the 2011-2012 season with a torn meniscus.

Two other senior leaders and returning starters, Kayla McBride and Ariel Braker, are doubtful for Wednesday’s exhibition game. McBride sprained her right ankle twice in the past two weeks. Braker is dealing with knee pain that plagued her last season. McGraw hopes they are ready for the season opener which is at home on Saturday, Nov. 9, at 1 p.m. (ET) against North Carolina-Wilmington.

“We don’t have a senior class right now, which is disappointing,” McGraw said.

Junior point guard Whitney Holloway is also likely to miss the opener with a muscle pull, whittling down McGraw’s roster from 13 players to nine.

Achonwa’s extended absence is a major concern.

“Natalie had her knee scoped,” McGraw said. “It’s a small tear, so we’re hoping she might even be back in 4-to-6 weeks.

“Ariel has been off about two weeks. She hasn’t done anything. I don’t see her playing in the exhibition.’’

Losing three starters has set the Irish back. McGraw planned to use the exhibition game to work in particular groups and start implementing a two-post offense with Achonwa and Reimer. Now, the Irish are likely to revert back to a four-guard offense with Reimer in the post.

“What we have now is a great opportunity for everybody on the bench to have a chance to get more reps in practice and contribute in the game,” McGraw said. “It’s a good time of the year for the freshmen to get an opportunity.”

If McBride is ready to go on Wednesday, she will start, along with sophomore Jewell Loyd on the wing and freshman Lindsay Allen at point guard. The other guard will likely be either Michaela Mabrey or Madison Cable. Reimer and junior Markisha Wright are expected to handle the majority of time at the post.

“Natalie’s spot is a tough position to fill because of her leadership,” McGraw said. “That’s not something anybody can just step into. Michaela Mabrey and Madison Cable are really playing well right now, and Taya Reimer has been playing really well. She will have to step in and replace the production in the post.”

McGraw likes the idea of the two-post offense, but with freshmen Nelson and Thompson as the first back-ups, there is a depth issue.

“With Kristina Nelson and Diamond, they’re really just centers,” McGraw said. “I don’t see playing them for a long stretch in the season. That makes it harder to play two posts at a time if we get into any foul trouble. I’m really happy with them. They’re both really improving, and they’ve gotten a lot of reps. I’m glad they’re getting this opportunity.”

The focus of the exhibition will be on executing the offense.

“Offensively, we’ll be looking at can we get the shots we want?” McGraw said. “One of the first things we’ll look at is the assist-to-turnover stat.”

According to McGraw, Allen is ready to take over at point guard.

“Lindsay really looks good,” McGraw said. “She’s so smart. She has a really good sense of mixing up the offenses in terms of not being predictable. She’s distributing the ball well. She’s effective with her shot and knowing when she has drive opportunities.

“Lindsay is fast and a really good passer, and has great vision. She’s going to give up the ball quickly. Once she sees somebody open, they’re going to get the ball in their hands quickly. I’m confident that she can handle the pressure, and she can get up and play defense.”

 Senior post player Natalie Achonwa is one of the players Notre Dame will be playing without when it hits the court Wednesday night in an exhibtion game against California (Pa.). SBT photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN