Inside game gives Notre Dame women the edge

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Just like the last time women’s basketball teams from Baylor and Notre Dame met at Purcell Pavilion, post play will determine the outcome Monday.

Two seasons ago, Britney Griner – at 6-foot-8 one of the biggest and all-time best – had 24 points and 14 rebounds in the Bears’ 73-61 victory.

Griner’s gone now. Mere mortals have replaced her, leaving Baylor to fret over a position that was so solid it was taken for granted for four years.

Guard Odyssey Sims (28.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists) is the catalyst for the No. 2-seed Bears. That’s not going to change in the battle for the Final Four. Sims is going to get her numbers, no matter who the Irish use against her on defense.

What’s up for discussion is the inside game. Baylor has two freshmen – 5-foot-11 Nina Davis and 6-2 Khadijiah Cave – to go along with 6-4 junior Sune Agbuke in the rotation. Notre Dame counters with seniors Natalie Achonwa (6-3) and Ariel Braker (6-1), and freshman Taya Reimer (6-3).

Advantage: Irish.

An Odyssey

If Notre Dame is to travel the road to Nashville, its post players will be riding shotgun operating the GPS.

“(Post play) is going to be really important,” said Braker. “A lot of people are focused on Odyssey, which is clearly a part of their game. They have two freshmen posts who have been doing really well this year. If they have a really good game also, that will be a huge factor for us.

“We’re going to need to shut them down. Odyssey’s going to get her numbers, we know that. If we don’t shut them down in the post, we’re not going to have a chance to win the game.”

Davis and Cave combined for 38 points in Saturday’s win over Kentucky, which didn’t have near the inside presence the Irish possess.

Agbuke, who struggles with the up-and-down style that’s Notre Dame’s trademark, played just 14 minutes against the Wildcats.

“Matchups dictate who plays more minutes,” said Bill Brock, Baylor’s associate head coach in charge of post play. “Sometimes you have to go with athleticism versus size. If you have size and athleticism, that’d be the perfect fit.”

Big change

Haven’t had that since Griner went pro.

“The biggest (change without Griner) is that people change their offensive scheme against you,” Brock said. “They go back to their regular schemes of attacking the middle and going to the rim. The past four years people just would not come in there because there wasn’t any reason to.

“The absence of a huge rim protector was the thing we’ve had to work on the most. I think our team has adjusted defensively in that regard. Our second-line defense and our help defense have been outstanding this year.”

The Irish can junk the game plan from a couple years ago and dare the Bears to shut them down.

“We’re pretty athletic if you look at Nina Davis, (Cave), and I have some length,” said Agbuke. “Khadijiah is really long.

“I don’t really know if the athleticism is as much of a factor as maybe (Notre Dame’s) know-how and their experience. They are very patient. They look for the right shots; the shots they want. Their system, and the way they work it, is what our biggest problems are going to be.”

Irish face

Achonwa is the face of that system. Twenty-three points, seven rebounds, six assists (including a behind-the-back beauty) and five blocks against Oklahoma State Saturday attest to the scope of her game.

“Their post players do a great job of running the floor,” said Brock. “There are two things involved there: One, you can run; but if you don’t have anybody who can deliver the ball to you when you run, it doesn’t matter. Notre Dame definitely has the perimeter players who can get the ball to the post.

“They’re also, especially Achonwa, very gifted. She can play inside-outside. Not only is she a good scorer and run the floor, she’s an outstanding passer. She’s a very, very talented young lady. We’re going to have our hands full with her post game.”

“We’re going to have to help each other a lot,” Cave said. “Even if (Achonwa) starts scoring a lot, we won’t get down. We’ll say, ‘Hey, get better on the next shot.’ Keep playing hard. Keep playing physical. We want it to be a physical game.

“(Achonwa’s) very strong; very athletic. We have to box out and rebound; do what we do best, rebound and run the floor well. I feel we can get a lot of buckets in transition.”

‘X’ factor

With all that focus on Achonwa, Notre Dame’s “X” factor may be Reimer. The rookie has struggled through the season, still finding her place on a very veteran team.

Saturday, she played five minutes in the first half before picking up her second foul.

“I’ve been pleased with Taya,” said Irish assistant Carol Owens, in charge of the post. “She’s gotten into a little foul trouble, but I’ve been pleased with her sense of urgency and how hard she’s worked in practice.

“There’s not any pressure on her because she’s got good leadership around her. She doesn’t have to do it by herself.

“(Foul trouble) is just experience: Learning the game, and learning how referees call it; putting yourself in a position where you’re not too tight or too close to get into foul trouble. The game is really fast. Sometimes it can be a physical game or a tight game. You have to adjust to it.”

Reimer is slowly finding the confidence to take a big shot. Six minutes into the second half against the Cowgirls, with the lead at 14 but the momentum teetering, Reimer battled through traffic, elevated, and made a 10-foot jumper that was significant at the time.

“There are still times when I’m, ‘Well, I don’t really know if I should shoot it or not,’” Reimer said. “That just comes along with being a freshman and that learning curve.”

By now, all the freshmen have earned their stripes. Chronological years shouldn’t be a factor Monday night.

“At this point, I don’t think you can look at who’s a freshman and who’s a senior,” Owens said. “They’re all in the same boat.”

Whose will be sailing toward Nashville, and whose will be sinking?

Post it: Advantage Irish.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com ¦ 574-235-6318