Irish women failing to find Achonwa

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND-Maturity becomes a factor when the going gets tough.

And right now, times are pretty difficult for Natalie Achonwa.

The 6-foot-3 inside presence for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team had a disappointing effort — early foul trouble, seven points and three rebounds — in Monday’s critical ACC win at Maryland.

On the other side of the coin, Achonwa’s target on the Terps, Alyssa Thomas, destroyed the Irish with 29 points and 12 rebounds.

“Defense was the biggest part (of the problem against Maryland), and how we could fix that (has been a priority),” Achonwa said. “Alyssa Thomas is a great player; an All-American. Our plan was to defend her and not let her go off like she did. We didn’t stay true to the plan.”

Like a burp gone bad, that sour taste didn’t easily leave the senior’s mouth.

Thursday night, in a 74-48 victory over undermanned Virginia Tech, Achonwa was better — 10 points, five rebounds, three assists — but nowhere near as special as she will have to be Sunday in a showdown at third-ranked Duke.

Muffet McGraw isn’t the least bit worried about Achonwa being back in form Sunday. History has proven she can answer the bell.

“I never worry about Natalie,” the Notre Dame coach said. “She’s probably the most mature player I’ve ever coached. She understands the game so well. She knows what she needs to do. She will be ready tomorrow. She’s going to be ready on Sunday.

She comes into every game with the right mental approach.”

“It’s all about composure; staying calm in every situation,” said Achonwa. “Let it be fouls; let us be down; let it be shots not going down — keep a level head. My team feeds off my energy. I have to make sure I’m calm so the rest of the team will be calm.”

That calm exterior may have been a facade for bubbling frustration Thursday night. While Achonwa settled for role-player duty, it wasn’t really the script that McGraw had written heading into the contest.

“We were trying to go into her,” McGraw said. “If I were her, I’d be a little frustrated. Our game plan was, first play of the game we were going into (Achonwa), and we didn’t. The second play ... And, we didn’t. We kept missing her inside. That was a problem. She was probably a little frustrated that we weren’t following the game plan.

“She hid it well. She just kept on playing and working. I’m not worried about her.”

Achonwa was efficient. She hit four of the five shots she attempted while playing 24 minutes in a lopsided game that wasn’t even as close as the final score. Heck, the Hokies tossed up seven shots (while shooting 27 percent) that didn’t even hit the rim.

“It’s hard because it’s something we’ve been working on, staying true to the game plan,” Achonwa said of the post passes that didn’t happen. “But when other people are taking shots and we’re winning, I’m happy with it all.”

It’s clear that, 148 games into her Notre Dame career, Achonwa is cognizant of political correctness, as well as maturity.

Game No. 149, on Super Bowl Sunday, will be a test. Duke (21-1) has been a targeted team since the Irish joined the ACC. Notre Dame beat the Blue Devils to advance to the Final Four last season.

Achonwa’s focus will be on Duke’s Elizabeth Williams (6-foot-3; 14.0 points a game) and Haley Peters (6-3; 11.9).

“Duke is one of the big games we’ve seen, that we have marked on our schedule,” Achonwa said. “It’ll be great to finally play it.”

Slate’s clean. The challenge is obvious.

Achonwa understands what’s on the line.

That’s what mature players do.

Virginia Tech's Uju Ugoka comes down on Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa (11) as players compete for the ball during Thursday's game at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN via FTP
Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa (11) moves the ball around the top of the key during the Notre Dame-Virginia Tech women's basketball game on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa, left, moves by Virginia Tech's Taijah Campbell during the Notre Dame-Virginia Tech women's basketball game on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa (11) looks for help as she gets pressure from Virginia Tech's Taijah Campbell during the Notre Dame-Virginia Tech women's basketball game on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa (11) passes the ball during the Notre Dame-Virginia Tech women's basketball game on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN