Cowgirls offer little resistance for Notre Dame women

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Natalie Achonwa hammered Oklahoma State early with transition baskets to help Notre Dame sprint to a 14-0 lead in its NCAA women’s basketball Sweet 16 game Saturday at Purcell Pavilion.

When Oklahoma State switched to a double team on Achonwa, she turned into a passer.

When the Cowgirls challenge Achonwa inside, she blocked five shots.

Achonwa, a 6-foot-3 senior, used her versatility to put Notre Dame on the verge of its fourth consecutive trip to the Final Four, as the Irish beat Oklahoma State 89-72.

Top seed Notre Dame (35-0) faces No. 2 seed Baylor (32-4) on Monday night at 7:30 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion for a berth in the Final Four. Oklahoma State’s season ends at 25-9.

Baylor beat Notre Dame 80-61 in the 2012 national championship game, and handed Notre Dame its last loss at Purcell Pavilion, 73-61, on Dec. 5, 2012. The Bears lead the series against Notre Dame, 4-0.

Achonwa, not the kind of post who stands around in the blocks and waits for the action to come to her, scored 23 points, and had seven rebounds, six assists and five blocked shots. Five rebounds were on the offensive boards.

Achonwa looked like a guard with her crisp passing, including a behind-the-back beauty to Madison Cable for a lay-up that gave the Irish a 38-22 lead with 6:31 left in the first half and had a sellout crowd roaring.

“I don’t know that there's many post players in the country that will pass the ball as well as that young lady does,” Oklahoma State coach Jim Littell said of Achonwa. “You turn your head and she's going to zip one right by your ear and hit somebody for an open lay-up or a two-footer.”

Achonwa hit 10-of-13 shots against Oklahoma State. In three NCAA games, the native of Guelph, Ontario is hitting 73 percent (24-of-33). That’s a jump of 13 percent from her season average of 60.2 percent, and a huge jump from her last game before entering the NCAA Tournament. Achonwa only hit 4-of-14 shots against Duke.

Setting up her offense with the transition is the biggest reason Achonwa’s game has stepped up in the tournament.

“When you have Kayla McBride sprinting full court with the ball, and then you have Jewell Loyd coming up, they might think she’s going for an alley-oop, it opens the middle so much,” Achonwa said. “I’m able to find the gaps, and the guards do a great job of finding me.”

Littell marveled at the different ways in which Achonwa hurt Oklahoma State.

“(Achonwa) has more dimension to her game than a lot of post players in the country,” Littell said. “When you have the ability to score on the box, but you also have the ability to beat people with the pass, it makes you a special player.”

Irish coach Muffet McGraw said that Achonwa’s high basketball IQ and anticipation has helped her be an impact player for the Irish in the tournament. Achonwa is averaging 21.0 points a game in three NCAA games. She is averaging 14.5 for the season.

“Natalie moves so well without the ball,” McGraw said. “She comes off of screens very well.”

Achonwa’s efficiency is remarkable in tourney play. She scored 15 points in 20 minutes in the NCAA opener against Robert Morris, a 93-42 Irish blowout in which Achonwa could have doubled her point total easily. Achonwa scored 25 points in 27 minutes against Arizona State in the second round, and had 23 points in 35 minutes on Saturday.

McGraw wasn’t happy with Achonwa’s eight turnovers, but blamed herself for that. McGraw said that the sloppy play later in the game was due to fatigue, and that she should have subbed more for Achonwa.

Achonwa wasn’t the only player who caused Oklahoma State plenty of trouble.

Loyd hurt the Cowgirls for a double-double with 20 points and 12 rebounds. McBride scored 18 points and had five rebounds and four assists.

Oklahoma State point guard Tiffany Bias shook off an ankle injury suffered in Monday’s second-round victory against Purdue and scored 17 points.

McGraw thought that the deafening Irish home crowd affected the Cowgirls early and caused some of Oklahoma State’s missed shots. The Cowgirls only hit one of their first seven attempts, but snapped out of their shooting funk to close to 10. Littell gave Notre Dame credit for turning back the Cowgirls.

“After probably the first five to seven minutes, I thought our kids played somewhat even with them, but sometimes you’ve got to say someone’s pretty darn good, and that team (Notre Dame) is really, really good and well coached,” Littell said. “We got beat today by a better team, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I’m proud of my kids and the year that they’ve had.”

Curt Rallo: CRallo@SBTinfo.com

Twitter: @rallo_NDInsider

Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa blocks a shot by Oklahoma State's Tiffany Bias as Jewell Loyd helps defend during Saturday's regional semifinal game at Purcell Pavilion. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

OKLAHOMA ST. (25-9): Roshunda Johnson 2-4 0-0 5, Lindsay Bias 7-16 2-2 17, Liz Donohoe 2-6 1-1 5, Brittney Martin 3-15 0-0 6, Lashawn Jones 8-15 0-1 16, Brittany Atkins 4-10 3-3 13, Lakota Beatty 0-0 0-0 0, Kendra Suttles 2-3 4-5 8, Kamri Anderson 0-0 0-0 0, Katelyn Loecker 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 29-71 10-12 72.

NOTRE DAME (35-0): Natalie Achonwa 10-13 3-5 23, Lindsay Allen 1-2 3-4 5, Kayla McBride 7-19 2-2 18, Jewell Loyd 9-16 1-1 20, Ariel Braker 0-3 2-2 2, Whitney Holloway 0-0 1-2 1, Kristina Nelson 0-0 0-0 0, Taya Reimer 1-3 2-4 4, Madison Cable 3-5 2-2 8, Michaela Mabrey 1-2 0-0 2, Hannah Huffman 0-1 0-0 0, Markisha Wright 2-3 2-4 6. Totals 34-67 18-26 89.

Halftime — Notre Dame 49-35. 3-Point Goals — Oklahoma St. 4-14 (Atkins 2-4, Johnson 1-2, Bias 1-5, Loecker 0-1, Suttles 0-1, Donohoe 0-1), Notre Dame 3-8 (McBride 2-5, Loyd 1-2, Cable 0-1). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — Oklahoma St. 36 (Martin 8), Notre Dame 46 (Loyd 12). Assists — Oklahoma St. 15 (Bias 11), Notre Dame 18 (Achonwa, Allen 6). Total Fouls — Oklahoma St. 22, Notre Dame 13. A — 8,774.