Achonwa injury leaves physical, emotional void for Notre Dame women

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Natalie Achonwa gingerly climbed two steps on a ladder, and then used her long reach to cut down a piece of the net after No. 1 seed Notre Dame polished off nemesis Baylor, 88-69, at Purcell Pavilion on Monday night to earn a fourth consecutive trip to the Final Four.

Irish Nation is a little more fragile, wondering if Notre Dame can overcome a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered by Achonwa that will prevent the 6-foot-3 senior post from playing in the Final Four. Notre Dame announced the injury after an MRI on Tuesday.

Achonwa, who has had a dominating impact on Notre Dame’s tournament run, suffered the injury to her left knee when she was fouled by Baylor’s Chardonae Fuqua’ on a drive to the hoop with 4:51 left in the game. Notre Dame led 75-64.

Achonwa entered the Baylor game averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds and hitting 61 percent of her shots.

In four NCAA Tournament games, Achonwa averaged 20.5 points and 9.8 rebounds and hit 71 percent of her shots.

Achonwa is expected to need six to nine months of recovery time, which will impact her prospective WNBA career.

Notre Dame (36-0) plays against No. 4 seed Maryland (28-6) in a national semifinal game at 6:30 p.m. EDT on Sunday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville (ESPN). No. 1 Connecticut (38-0) plays the winner of Tuesday’s game between No. 2 Stanford (32-3) and No. 4 North Carolina (27-9) in the other semifinal.

“It’s devastating from an emotional standpoint, because you’re talking about your senior leader not having a chance to play for a national championship,” said ESPN analyst and Indiana Fever assistant coach Stephanie White. “It’s devastating for any kid, and espe-cially for a kid who is the heart and soul of everything you do.”

White doesn’t think that the injury means that the Irish are out of the national championship picture.

“It’s manageable, because they have capable pieces,” White said. “Notre Dame is not a team that depends on one or two players to win ball games.”

Achonwa was a particularly tough matchup for opposing posts. She could run the court and frequently scored in transition. She had spin moves and power moves that enabled her to score off the block. She piled up points on putbacks. Against Baylor, she had a double-double by halftime (11 points, 11 rebounds), and finished with 19 points and 15 rebounds.

“It’s a shame for her, it’s devastating news, but it’s also a great opportunity for somebody to step up, and I’m hoping that everybody does a little bit more,” said Irish coach Muffet McGraw. “When Skylar Diggins graduated, everybody said, you can’t win without her, but here we are, and now, we’re in the same position.”

White said that without Achonwa, Notre Dame faces matchup problems. Who guards Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas, who had 29 points and 12 rebounds in Notre Dame’s 87-83 victory on Jan. 27? Thomas led a Maryland charge that saw the Terrapins rally from a 22-point deficit. Likewise, if Notre Dame advances to the national championship game and faces a possible matchup against Connecticut, who guards the Huskies’ Stefanie Dolson, who has had classic battles in the paint with Achonwa?

Notre Dame could ask more from its high-scoring wings, Kayla McBride (17.2 points a game) and Jewell Loyd (18.8). The Irish bench will be a key factor.

White thinks that the Irish may shift to a four-guard lineup.

“I like Notre Dame with four guards, because they’re dynamic on the offensive end, and it certainly presents a challenge on the defensive end,” White said. “With the versatility you have with four guards out on the floor, to be able to show a different type of defense, switching, getting out in the passing lanes, creating turnovers … I think what Notre Dame already does on both ends of the floor is a transition four-guard offense.”

McGraw said that the four-guard lineup, with either Michaela Mabrey or Madison Cable starting in place of Achonwa, is a strong consideration. Notre Dame played mostly a four-guard lineup last season to great success, beating Connecticut three times and reaching the Final Four. The four-guard offense would leave senior Ariel Braker, a 6-1 forward, as the probable starting post.

If Notre Dame decides to go with another post to replace Achonwa, freshman Taya Reimer and junior Markisha Wright would likely get the call. Reimer started four games at the beginning of the season when Achonwa was out with a torn meniscus. Reimer, the na-tional high school player of the year last season, has scoring ability and is an exceptional shot blocker, but has been in foul trouble frequently this season.

“When we really needed Markisha in big games against Tennessee and Maryland, she stepped up for us,” said Carol Owens, who coaches posts for the Irish.

“Taya has had crucial minutes in this type of game and been very productive.”

McGraw said that one of the biggest jobs during the next couple of days will be to get a new chemistry working with the revised Irish lineup. The Hall of Fame coach said that when she found out the news about Achonwa, she called the team together.

“We had a meeting and we said, it’s not a matter of will someone step up, the question is who is it going to be, and will it be everybody, or will it be one or two people?” McGraw said. “We need everybody to do a little more, to come into practice with the focus and in-tensity and saying, this is my time.”

Notre Dame’s resilience will be tested as it climbs onto the greatest stage in college women’s basketball without a key player.

“We’re not sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves,” McGraw said. “Ace is not going to do that, either, and that’s why we’re not.”

When Achonwa got up of off the court, she gave a defiant gesture and exhorted the Irish to finish off Baylor. She came back onto the court after the game and took part in the celebration. McGraw said that there were no tears afterward in the locker room, and there were no tears when doctors informed Achonwa that her collegiate career was over.

“We looked at how she handled it last night and today, and it’s inspiring to see that kind of leadership from a senior in college whose career just ended, and she’s still finding a way to lead.

“I’m sure everybody has had that moment of despair and is devastated that the injury to Natalie had to happen at this time, but we’re trying to look at the positive side and seize the opportunity.”

McGraw added that she had a chance to look at the foul, and it was not a hard foul as it originally appeared to be. McGraw said that the contact threw Achonwa off balance, and that she fell awkwardly.

Curt Rallo: CRallo@SBTinfo.com

Twitter: @rallo_NDInsider

Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa (11) celebrates after drawing a foul from Baylor's Khadijiah Cave (55) during the NCAA women's basketball Elite Eight tournament game on Monday, March 31, 2014, inside the Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN