Notre Dame women's basketball: Tough to contain trio of stars

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

Stopping one of Notre Dame’s Big Three — Kayla McBride, Natalie Achonwa and Jewell Loyd — was a top priority for Virginia coach Joanne Boyle as she game-planned for the No. 2-ranked Irish.

Virginia held Loyd to her season average of 17 points, but the Cavaliers fell far short of keeping McBride or Achonwa close to their usual, and it cost the Cavaliers a stunning upset.

Virginia gave Notre Dame its closest game of the season before suffering a 79-72 loss.

Notre Dame (15-0, 3-0 ACC) will try to continue its winning ways on Thursday at Pittsburgh (9-8, 1-2).

Achonwa, a 6-foot-3 senior post, turned in the kind of performance that generates All-America talk. She scored a career-high 26 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, including eight offensive boards. She was 9-of-14 shooting and 8-of-10 free-throw shooting. Achonwa entered the game averaging 12.3 points and 8.1 rebounds.

McBride, a 5-11 senior guard, scored 23 points and was the player the Irish turned to when they had to have points. She entered the game averaging 15.6 points. She’s been even better in her last six games, averaging 19.5.

Together, Notre Dame’s three All-America candidates combined for 66 of the team’s 79 points.

“Kayla really got us going in the beginning, and Ace was steady in both halves,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. “Jewell came on in second half.”

While the Big Three produced against Virginia (8-8, 1-2), McGraw wants more consistency from the rest of the Irish.

“We expect (those three) to lead us in big games,” McGraw said. “I would have liked more production from the rest of the group. Taya Reimer played well in the second half. Foul trouble hurt her. I was disappointed in the bench (which was outscored, 31-7, by Virginia).

“I think in games like this, we tend to keep the ball in (McBride’s) hands, but I still think the other players can contribute.”

Irish leaders

When Notre Dame made just one of 12 shots during a stretch in the latter part of the first half, McBride turned the Irish around by hitting three consecutive shots. She triggered a 19-11 run to close out the half and give the Irish a 43-36 lead at the break.

When Virginia closed to 71-69, McBride hit a stunning shot in traffic to start an 8-3 Irish run to seal the victory. Achonwa scored four of the last eight points in the game, and four of the last nine points in the first half.

“I think it’s leadership,” McGraw said. “I think you look at (Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa), the senior leaders, and we wanted the ball in their hands late in the game. Natalie got free for a couple of layups.

“We did some good things offensively. She got to the line and made free throws. That was really key for us. And then we got a couple of stops. That was the hardest part of the game, to get the stops.”

Achonwa said that the Irish have great chemistry.

“I really like the relationship between (McBride) and I, and between our whole team,” Achonwa said. “We’re at the point now, where I just look at K-Mac and I’m like, ‘Let’s go,’ and she gets the team hyped. That’s where she’s better, making sure we have energy. Her attitude … the attack mode that she has gives us energy.”

Achonwa also said that the Irish have purpose, and that it paid off during critical times against Virginia.

“We don’t practice without a reason,” Achonwa said. “We don’t do a walk-through without a reason. We don’t do a shoot-around without a reason. I think it’s just working on transferring what we do in those practices and those walk-throughs to the game, even from the huddle to the court. We have to make sure that we’re focusing on the game plan that Coach puts together for us.”

Defensive issues

McGraw said that the Irish have to improve on defense, especially in a tough stretch that has the them playing three games in a row on the road starting with Virginia. The stretch grows to four of five on the road, and six of eight.

On Sunday, Notre Dame limited the Cavaliers to 41.9-percent shooting (31-of-74), but only forced 11 turnovers.

“That’s been our concern all year, our defense,” McGraw said. “We keep working on it. We’ve got to get better at help rotation, we’ve got to get better with our on-the-ball defense, and we’ve got to get a better plan how we’re going to guard people, because what we’re doing now isn’t working.”

Tough league

A rough first half against Clemson in which the Irish only led 27-23 before posting a 71-51 victory, and a seven-point escape from Virginia has made it clear to McGraw that the ACC will be a highly competitive league. The ACC currently has two teams in the top 5, three in the Top 10 — a fourth Top 10 team, Louisville, joins the league next season — and six teams in the Top 25.

“This is going to be a very tough league, especially on the road,” McGraw said. “There are so many good teams and good coaches. The crowd at Virginia was good, the atmosphere was great. Everywhere is going to be like that.

“The road is going to be really tough, and everybody has to be ready to protect their home court.”

Nelson absent

Notre Dame freshman post Kristina Nelson did not make the trip to Virginia because of a family situation. She is expected to make the trip to Pittsburgh on Thursday.

McBride in national pool

McBride and former All-American Skylar Diggins are among 33 players who have been named to the 2014-16 USA Basketball Women’s National Team pool that was announced Monday.

From that group, the 2014 USA World Championship Team and the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team will be selected.

McBride, who is one of five collegians in the pool, and Diggins both took part in the national team mini-camp in Las Vegas on Oct. 4-6. The two are seeking to become the first Notre Dame players to compete for the U.S. in the World Championships or the Olympics since 2004, when Ruth Riley helped the Americans to a gold medal in Athens.

“Being part of this group means so much,” McBride said in a press release. “It’s something you always think about, the opportunity to play with the best of the best.

McBride’s current teammate, Achonwa has been a mainstay with the Canadian Women’s National Team since 2009 and was a member of her nation’s Olympic squad in 2012, helping Canada to its first quarterfinal berth in 28 years.

Under Armour

McGraw is pleased with Notre Dame’s new association with Under Armour and is looking forward to some basketball uniforms that display a unique Irish look and celebrate Notre Dame’s precious mettle.

“We’re hoping for something a little edgy and fun,” McGraw said. “I met with the CEO, Kevin Plank, and he was great. He was very impressive. He’s a former student-athlete at the University of Maryland, and he’s done great things with his company in a short amount of time.

“We’re excited to be with a company that’s on the cutting edge. We’re looking forward to our association with them.”

Maryland, South Carolina and Texas Tech are among the other schools in the Under Armour family.

CRallo@SBTinfo.com

Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd shoots over Virginia’s Lexie Gerson during the first half of Sunday’s game in Charlottesville, Va. (AP Photo/ANDREW SHURTLEFF)