Notre Dame's Reimer still developing an edge

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame freshman Taya Reimer may be setting a record for the most smiles in one season.

She smiles during games.

She smiles at practice.

She smiles during interviews.

Irish women’s basketball assistant coach Carol Owens has seen enough of the smiles.

“She’s very nice … and I’m trying to knock that out of her,” Owens said. “She can be nice off the court.”

Reimer, a 6-foot-3 freshman who played for Hamilton Southeastern High School in suburban Indianapolis, will be a key figure for No. 1 seed Notre Dame (33-0) in its second-round NCAA Tournament game against No. 9 seed Arizona State (23-9) on Monday night (6:30 EDT, ESPN2 and ESPN News). She also figures heavily into Notre Dame’s hopes of a national championship, coming off the bench to average 7.7 points and 4.8 rebounds, as well as leading the Irish with 47 blocked shots.

When Reimer comes off the bench on Monday night to sub in against Arizona State, and throughout the tournament, the Irish want to see a fierce competitor emerge.

“We’re trying to get her to be tougher, and have a tough mentality, because at this level, and the teams we play, you have to have that mentality to take what a team throws at you, and play at a high level,” Owens said. “When she gets that competitive edge, combined with her talent, she’s going to be really dangerous.”

Indiana Fever associate head coach and ESPN analyst Stephanie White said that players have to lose their niceness when they step on the court.

“You’ve got to have a little nasty,” White said. “You just have to.”

White said that former Irish star Skylar Diggins and current Irish players Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd have the mental toughness that transforms a good player into a great player, an All-American.

She loves Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, a model citizen off the court, for his fierceness on the court. He’s the guy who infuriated Buckeye opponents by getting up in the grill of players he guarded, and racking up floorburns to win the loose ball, or going through anybody who tried to get in his way. White sees that potential in Reimer, who she projects as an All-American candidate and a pro prospect.

“You have to have that competitive fire,” White said. “As a coach, you always ask your players to be different people between the lines.”

Reimer gets it, but lets people know it’s a process.

“I think I can definitely be meaner, but I’ve gotten a little meaner,” Reimer said. “The first elbow I took helped me with that.”

Right now, Reimer is a complementary player, deferring to top scorers Jewell Loyd, Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa. Her key contributions are rebounding and defense.

“Scoring is kind of a bonus for her,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said. “It takes the pressure off her, when you have a group of upperclassmen that are carrying the team scoring-wise, so the freshmen can come in, get assimilated, get comfortable, and know that we want you to score, but the pressure is not on you to score.”

Reimer can score, and the Irish can use her scoring ability. She scored 1,374 career points at Hamilton Southeastern, and displayed a deft shooting touch, as well as the ability to be a force off the blocks.

“She can shoot that high-post shot when she catches the ball and people drop off,” White said. “She shouldn’t necessarily think pass first.”

As a freshman, Reimer has had to deal with a much more aggressive and physical style of play. She’s had to deal with grueling practices, playing against some of the best competition in the country, and taking heat from upperclassmen.

“Freshmen deal with a lot of things that can be intimidating, things they never had to deal with in high school,” Owens said. “Taya is understanding that the upperclassmen want the best out of her, and when they’re pushing her, it’s not because they’re trying to dog her, it’s because they want to make her better.”

Notre Dame senior post Natalie Achonwa has seen a change in Reimer this season.

“Lately, she’s been killing me in practice,” Achonwa said. “Taya has done a great job on being open to criticism, being open to help, and being open to the opinions of others, and that’s really helped her grow this year.”

Reimer’s numbers have been steady throughout the season. She’s hitting 53 percent of her shots, with no decrease in her past 10 games. She’s had 10 games in double-figures, but none since a 10-point effort against Wake Forest on Feb. 20. She scored only two points in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game against Duke, but had five rebounds and three blocked shots to help the Irish push back a strong surge by the Blue Devils when the Irish were dealing with foul trouble in the first half.

“Taya is a little bit like Jewell Loyd, in that when it’s your time to shine, you step up and take ownership of it,” White said. “When it’s needed, she has the ability to step up and to stand out.”

Reimer feels her best basketball is ahead of her this season.

“Things are starting to click,” Reimer said. “I definitely feel it, but there are still times when I’m saying, I should have done this, I should have done that, but my thought processes are so much different than at the beginning of the season.”

Robert Morris center Cassie Oursler (31) and Notre Dame forward Taya Reimer (12) look for the rebound in a first-round game in the NCAA women's tournament, Saturday in Toledo, Ohio. (AP Photo/RICK OSENTOSKI)