Notre Dame senior women have come a long way

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

In the past five recruiting classes for Notre Dame women’s basketball, only one failed to earn a Top 5 ranking. That group, which signed with the Irish in November 2009, has a chance to be remembered for its finish, rather than its start.

Natalie Achonwa, Ariel Braker and Kayla McBride will be honored before Monday’s game against Georgia Tech, the designated senior night, even though the Irish will still have two more home games left on the regular-season schedule — against Duke and North Carolina.

After the four-minute senior night ceremony (per Atlantic Coast Conference rules), the No. 2-ranked Irish (24-0, 11-0) square off against a Georgia Tech (17-8, 7-5) squad that is riding a five-game winning streak in league play.

“We’ve been underdogs,” McBride said. “We were under-respected as a recruiting class. We’ve always had that chip on our shoulder. I think it’s made our class one of the hardest working groups. We push each other. We know what we’re capable of. We set a stan-dard for ourselves. It got us here. Hopefully, we can finish strong.

“I’m just so proud of how this class has fought through adversity and stuck together through good days and bad days. When we’re on the court, we’re playing for each other.”

McBride, a 5-foot-11 guard from Erie, Pa., averages 17.1 points and 5.5 rebounds and has 90 assists in emerging as a first-team All-America candidate.

Achonwa, a 6-3 post from Guelph, Ont., averages 14.1 points and 7.6 rebounds. She also is receiving All-America mention.

Braker, a 6-1 post from Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., averages 3.5 points and 4.8 rebounds.

“This is definitely among the best classes ever,” said Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw. “I think time will tell if it’s going to be the best ever. They’ve set an incredibly high standard. I think their work ethic, their attitude, what they’ve contributed to this program, has been amazing. I think they’ve really established themselves as one of the best ever.

“It’s a class that has overcome a lot of adversity. None of them came in as starters. Ace (Achonwa) came off the bench for two years. Ariel didn’t play much for two years. K-Mac (McBride) was a starter earlier, but what she overcame to get to where she is ... it’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish, and their finish is still unwritten, and we’re hoping it’s going to be a great one.”

The seniors are 125-14 so far, with three trips to the Final Four. They are five wins short of the program record for victories by a class (130) set by the Class of 2013 (Skylar Diggins and Kaila Turner).

“I think all three improved tremendously while they were here,” McGraw said. “I think that’s a credit to their work ethic and to their position coaches.

“I think they had it in them. They have a competitive drive. They wanted to get better. I remember Ariel, after her sophomore year, she never got discouraged. She wanted to get better. She stayed in the summer and paid her own way to stay, to get in the weight room and get strong. It was a great effort on all of their parts to come through the adversity they all went through.”

Adversity has been a frequent companion for the seniors.

McBride missed the second half of her freshman season in order to get her academics on track.

Achonwa had two knee surgeries during her collegiate career. Braker underwent three knee surgeries.

“My freshman year was hard, but it was a good hard,” McBride said. “I learned a lot. I made some mistakes. I sat the second half of the season, but it motivated me, and I wouldn’t be where I am now if it didn’t happen. It’s a life lesson that everybody has to go through. I’m glad it happened my freshmen year than any other time.

“I have a really strong support system. My family would never let me give up or let me feel that I was less than anything I was. My coaches and teammates never treated me any different. They knew I made a mistake, and they were willing to be there for me and watch me grow and help me come back from that. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here. I had great players, great people ahead of me, and they did so much for me. I’m grateful for the help they gave me.”

Achonwa said that the bittersweet feelings of senior night are tempered by the anticipation of what the Irish can accomplish in the NCAA Tournament.

“I have mixed emotions,” Achonwa said. “It’s sad because it’s a symbol that the great four years at Notre Dame are coming to an end. But it’s exciting, because it means that regular-season play is coming to an end, and that’s one of our favorite times of the year at No-tre Dame.”

According to Achonwa, McGraw and her coaching staff deserve the credit for shaping the seniors into champions. In addition to the Final Fours, the group has celebrated two regular-season Big East crowns, one Big East Tournament title, and have a two-game lead with five games left in the ACC regular season.

“I think the biggest thing is when Coach recruits people, she recruits people,” Achonwa said. “She doesn’t necessarily recruit the top of every class. We’ve gotten the Skylar Digginses, the Jewell Loyds, but she recruits a type of person that is dedicated, passionate, who works hard and who is a competitor at heart. That’s the biggest thing that the three seniors have in common — the competitor mentality that we have, the never settling. That’s what has made our class been so successful since we’ve been here. We love to compete, and we never settle.”

Braker’s adversity fueled her motivation.

“It’s a lot harder when you have to deal with injuries, always having to come back the next year,” Braker said. “It’s something I definitely struggled with. After my sophomore year, things just clicked. In high school, I had an ACL injury and it took a long time to over-come that. Without that injury, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I think I would have given up on myself.

“To make it to the Final Four all three years, that has really motivated us. We know where we want to go. We want to be on the top at the end. It’s made us work even harder.”

McBride said that she is amazed at the development of the senior class.

“Looking back and reflecting on it, it’s crazy to think about where we were our freshman year,” McBride said. “We matured together, we matured at different times. We blossomed together, we blossomed at different times.

“I think we were always there for each other and know how to pick each other up. We’ve always had confidence in each other. And now look, we’re all starting, we’re all having a huge impact on the team. Coach deserves a lot of credit for having confidence in us, and never allowing us to settle.”

But there still some unfinished business left for the three Irish standouts.

“I hope that when people look at the 2014 trio, I hope they see that we evolved over the four years, that we are completely different people, we are completely different basketball players than the three freshmen we came in as,” Achonwa said. “The fact that we have improved tremendously, and the fact that we have luckily had the chance to do it all ... this year, to get a chance to get a national championship for coach McGraw and end on that note, would seal that deal on that legacy.”

CRallo@SBTinfo.com

Notre Dame's Ariel Braker, center, and Kayla McBride, right, share a laugh after Natalie Achonwa, left, ran onto the court to get a ball unstuck from between the rim and backboard during a game against Kansas at last year's NCAA Regional in Norfolk, Va. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)

WHO: No. 2 Notre Dame (24-0, 11-0 ACC) vs. Georgia Tech (17-8, 7-5)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149)

WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday

TV: None locally

RADIO: Pulse FM (96.9, 92.1)

ONLINE: www.und.com

TICKETS: Available

WORTH NOTING: Notre Dame’s 24-0 record is the best start in program history. ... The national championship team of 2000-01 started 23-1. ... The Irish boast a 47-game regular-season winning streak. ... Notre Dame’s 23-game home court winning streak is the third best in program history, and the third-longest currently in Division I. ... Notre Dame has average 8,595 fans this season. The Irish are the only women’s team in the nation to fill their arena at 90 percent-plus capacity. ... This is just the second meeting between Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. The Irish won the only other meeting, 76-69, on Nov. 29, 1996. ... Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph is a native of Auburn, Ind. She played at DeKalb High School and at Purdue. ... Georgia Tech is coming off a 95-76 victory against Virginia, a team that the Irish beat, 89-82. ... In that game, Georgia Tech guard Tyaunna Marshall became the Yellow Jackets’ first 2000-point scorer. ... Marshall is second in the ACC in scoring (20.0). ... The Yellow Jackets have won five league games in a row. ... Notre Dame leads the ACC in scoring (87.7), and Georgia Tech is fifth (81.0).

WORTH QUOTING: “No matter when you have senior night, it’s going to be emotional. We know we have more games here. If you do it another game, if you do it after the game, it’s emotional.” — Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw