Notre Dame women’s basketball: Trip meant a lot to Achonwa

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

TORONTO -- It was simple and valuable advice that Notre Dame post Natalie Achonwa gave her Fighting Irish teammates when they touched down on Canadian soil for Sunday’s college women’s basketball game in Toronto.

“I was like, ‘You guys might want to turn your phones off,’” Achonwa said. “We are going into a different country.’”

Achonwa helped her teammates avoid international rates, and then the Irish helped Achonwa enjoy her first high-caliber game in front of her family and hometown fans. Notre Dame overwhelmed Duquesne, 100-61, at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, which was once the Maple Leafs Garden.

Irish coach Muffet McGraw always tries to schedule a homecoming event for the players on her roster. Some homecoming games happen through conference obligations. Achonwa’s homecoming was much trickier, and was more than two years in the making. Notre Dame had to go through a myriad of red tape with the NCAA to make sure the game happened, and make sure it didn’t count against the Irish as an international event.

“It’s exciting,” Achonwa said of her homecoming game. “It makes me really happy.”

A member of Canada’s 2012 Olympic team, Achonwa said the game in Toronto before nearly 1,000 fans was a boost for Canadian basketball. A number of Canadian youth teams were in attendance.

“When I was going through the recruiting process, it was a little bit different for me, because I didn’t get to see other Canadians firsthand, who had gone to the NCAA and been successful and played for teams like Notre Dame,” Achonwa said. “I think for us to be able to come here and show what the NCAA and what Notre Dame basketball really is, it makes me happy that younger players have had the opportunity to see us and maybe play in the NCAA themselves.”

Achonwa said that the women’s basketball game in Canada is on the rise.

“I preach it a lot,” Achonwa said of the caliber of Canadian basketball. “I think that’s one of the things I like to give back, to show how much Canada basketball is improving. With our senior national team, you can see it, purely on that, as well as our younger teams coming up. We have a lot of younger kids coming up. Hopefully, they’ll be able to play in the NCAA, and play on high-caliber basketball teams.”

McGraw enjoyed the opportunity to give Achonwa a homecoming game and let her players experience a world-class city like Toronto.

“I thought it was great to be able to come up here and play in front of a lot of possible future Canadian recruits,” McGraw said. “Playing both national anthems was really an emotional moment. I thought it was a great thing. I’m really glad we were able to come here and bring Natalie home so she could play in front of her hometown crowd, her family, friends, and coaches. It was a great experience. Toronto is a beautiful city. We really had a great time here.

“I thought we had a great crowd. It was a great atmosphere. There were a lot of Notre Dame people here, and they really made us feel at home.”

Moving up

No. 4 Louisville’s loss to arch-rival Kentucky on Sunday opened the door for Notre Dame to move up to No. 4 in the nation in the Associated Press rankings. Louisville couldn’t hold on to a 14-point lead and lost to the No. 7 ranked Wildcats, 69-64.

Notre Dame’s first game as the No. 4-ranked team will be against another ranked team. The Irish (6-0) face No. 13 Penn State (5-1), on Wednesday in the Big Ten/Atlantic Coast Conference Challenge. The Irish travel to Penn State for the game, which has a 7:30 p.m. tip-off scheduled. The Big Ten Network has the telecast. Penn State is coached by former Notre Dame player and assistant coach Coquese Washington, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1993.

Tough team

Notre Dame’s ability to dominate the boards (43-29) and finish strong on drives to the hoop impressed Duquesne coach Dan Burt. He said that the strength of the Irish puts them into an elite class.

“Notre Dame is physical,” Burt said. “I think that’s where you get to the point … if you want to be an elite-caliber basketball team in Division I, you have to have bodies that are bigger and strong. We have height, and we have some length, and I thought that we would be able to compete better than we did, but you can see, their dedication to the weight room is much greater than ours at this point. It’s something that we’ve addressed since I’ve been the head coach, but you’re not going to change that in six months.

“It’s obvious to see how much stronger Notre Dame is. They’re just so physical with you. I was hoping to keep the rebound totals close, because they rebound the ball so exceptionally well. We did a fairly decent job of that the second half, but the first half was too much.”

Scary moment

When Achonwa walked awkwardly to the Irish bench at the 14:08 mark of the second half, a festive crowd immediately went silent, and seconds turned into hours for McGraw.

Achonwa, who missed the first three games of the season with a knee injury, was feared to have suffered another knee injury.

McGraw was soon breathing a gale-force sigh of relief when the injury turned out to be a cut over Achonwa’s eye.

“I thought it was her knee at first, and then I saw the blood gushing out, and then I wondered where the foul was,” McGraw said. “It was very tense for a second or two, until I realized it wasn’t her knee.”

Fast starts

One of the trademarks of last season’s 35-2 Final Four squad was hitting opponents with fast starts to grab an early lead.

On Sunday, the Irish opened up the first and second halves with the kind of starts that had been missing. Notre Dame rolled to a 14-2 lead in the first half, and went on a 17-2 run early in the second half.

“I think we had a little chip on our shoulder,” Irish guard Kayla McBride said of the Irish intensity on Sunday. “We had to come out and set the tone, like coach has been talking about. In the Penn game, our other road game, we didn’t set that tone. We let them play with us. The same with DePaul. But this game, I think we really set the tone. It’s very important to do that, especially on the defensive end. That gets the transition game going, and that gets the offense going.”

Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa (right) wrestles for control of the ball with DePaul's Jessica January during last week's game at Purcell Pavilion.