Notre Dame women's basketball: Healthy homecoming set for Achonwa

South Bend Tribune

Even though she was only six at the time, Natalie Achonwa has memories of seeing the Toronto Maple Leafs playing at one of hockey’s most revered shrines, Maple Leafs Gardens.

Achonwa is headed back to the arena to create new memories Sunday when the native of Guelph, Ontario., and her Notre Dame women’s basketball teammates face Duquesne.

Tip-off between the No. 5 Fighting Irish (5-0) and Duquesne (5-2) is 2 p.m.

Duquesne, which was 24-8 last season, features Valparaiso transfer Raegan Moore, who scored 16 points as a freshman for the Crusaders in a 2009 game against then No. 3 Notre Dame, a game the Irish won 88-47. The 5-foot-9 guard averages 19.7 points a game. She tied an Atlantic 10 record with nine 3-pointers against Kent State in a 94-63 victory for the Dukes on Nov. 14. Moore finished with 35 points in the game.

Experiencing a new life as the Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens, Maple Leaf Gardens opened in 1931. The building also hosted The Beatles, Elvis Presley, a Muhammad Ali championship fight and a speech by Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill. It also was the site of boxing scenes for the movie, “Cinderella Man”.

When the Maple Leafs moved out in 1999, the arena went through a difficult transition.

In 2009, Ryerson University and Canadian retail giant Loblaw’s entered into a partnership that brought a major renovation to Maple Leaf Gardens, which now houses a Loblaw’s store, a basketball court and a hockey rink and other retail and athletic facilities.

Achonwa, a 6-foot-3 senior post for Notre Dame, has scored 1,076 points in her Irish career. She averaged 13.8 points and 9.4 rebounds a game last season. Regarded as the preeminent Canadian player on the American college landscape, Achonwa played for Canada’s women’s basketball team in the 2012 Olympics in London.

“I’m really blessed to come to a school like the University of Notre Dame that allows the opportunity to go home and play in front of my home crowd,” Achonwa said. “Since the sixth grade, when I started playing basketball, I’ve never played a competitive basketball game close to home. I played in Canada a couple of times when we were in British Columbia with the national team, but in front of my family, I’ve never played a good home game against a caliber team that’s similar to ours, in the same division that we’re in.

“I know my entire family and a bunch of friends will be there. I have 40 tickets for myself, and I know people who have purchased 50 tickets, 100 tickets, people who I know.”

Arranging a homecoming game for Achonwa in Toronto, 45 minutes from her hometown of Guelph, was challenging for the Irish staff. The Irish had to deal with NCAA restrictions on international games.

“We’re so excited about being able to go to Toronto for Natalie,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “A homecoming game is something we like to do for all of our players, but we didn’t think we’d be able to get to Toronto. We didn’t know if the NCAA would let us. We were able to work all of that out. We were fortunate enough to find Duquesne, another team that has (four) Canadian players that wanted to play the game in Toronto.”

Once the game was approved by the NCAA, the issue became whether Achonwa would play in the game. She suffered a torn meniscus in practice in late October, and the knee injury was expected to keep her out of game action until possibly as long as when Atlantic Coast Conference games started in January.

Achonwa underwent surgery, and managed to expedite her recovery. She played against the University of Pennsylvania on Nov. 23, scoring four points in 14 minutes. Against No. 25 DePaul on Monday, she scored 17 points and had eight rebounds in 27 minutes.

“We’re just so excited that Natalie is healthy again and is able to play in Toronto,” McGraw said. “It will be great for us as far as recruiting future players from Canada, and it will be great for her to play where she can have the whole country be able to see her.”

Achonwa was determined to not be relegated Sunday to the role of spectator.

“The biggest thing was, once I had the part of the meniscus clipped out, I had to regain strength in my hamstring and my quad,” she said. “That’s what took the most time. In terms of getting the swelling down and the actual injury, we took care of that pretty early in the recovery process.”

As Achonwa shakes off the rust from her game, McGraw sees her post presence being a difference-maker.

“With Natalie on the court, we’re so much more experience, so much more poised, and we have so many more options, because she can see the game like a point guard,” McGraw said. “She knows where to go, she knows where everybody else needs to go. People play well off of her. It’s a really good chemistry group when she’s on the floor.”

Achonwa’s success in NCAA basketball is a boost for women’s basketball in Canada.

“There have been great players before me who paved the way for players from Canada with some talent to leave Canada and play NCAA basketball,” Achonwa said. “In order for me to continue to play, at the level I want to play at after college, that was the biggest trip I had to do, make it over to play in the NCAA. It’s been an honor, even at the University of Notre Dame, to be their first international player. Hopefully, I paved the way for more international players and Canadian players to come and play at Notre Dame.”

Achonwa hopes that the rise of women’s basketball in Canada will eventually lead to a WNBA franchise in Toronto, a world-class city that is home to the NBA Raptors, the MLB Blue Jays, the NHL Maple Leafs, and has been mentioned as a possible NFL home.

“With the development of basketball in Canada, it’s been superb,” Achonwa said. “We’re still on the rise. If there was a way, I’d love for there to be a WNBA team in Toronto. It may still not be at that point. We’re still working on support for team sports in general. I think the Canadian team making the Olympics was huge. I think it was an eye-opener for a lot of people. I think that was a big step for us in getting team sports on the map. We’re trying to create that awareness of team sports and get the support that goes along with it.”


Notre Dame’s Natalie Achonwa battles DePaul’s Jessica January for a loose ball during Tuesday’s game in South Bend.

WHO: No. 5 Notre Dame (5-0) vs. Duquesne (5-2)

WHERE: Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens (3,000), Toronto

WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday

TV: WatchND

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9, 92.1)

ONLINE: www.und.com

TICKETS: Available

WORTH NOTING: Notre Dame and Duquesne have one common opponent to date. Notre Dame beat DePaul, 92-76, which beat Duquesne, 88-77. … Duquesne’s other loss this season was a 68-60 setback to Wisconsin-Green Bay. … Duquesne was 24-8 last season, and finished fourth in the Atlantic 10 at 11-3. … The Dukes return three starters from last season’s team, which finished with an RPI of 37. … Duquesne made it to the second round of the WNIT last season. … Notre Dame leads the series 2-0. The Irish thumped the Dukes, 95-67 and 91-63, both in 1993. … Notre Dame has a 28-game regular-season win streak dating back to last season (73-61 loss to Baylor on Dec. 5, 2012).

WORTH QUOTING: “I try to zone everything out and know that if I play my game and stick to what the coaches want, we’ll win and the people that came there to support me will be happy.”

— Irish senior leader Natalie Achonwa