Notre Dame title hopes may hinge on Achonwa's knee
SOUTH BEND – Parties aren’t supposed to end like this.
On the cusp of a celebration for the realization of some pretty hefty expectations, a sudden spill changed the mood.
And, quite possibly, the trajectory of the Notre Dame women’s basketball team.
The Irish are going to Nashville. Their 88-69 victory over Baylor Monday night punched their ticket to the Final Four.
Whether Natalie Achonwa, the face and the “nasty” of the team, goes along, is yet to be seen.
Just under five minutes left in the game and Notre Dame led by double digits. Notre Dame maintained its uptempo style of play and the 6-foot-3 Achonwa found a lane to the basket. As she sliced in from the left side, she was bumped into the basket standard by Baylor’s Chardonae Fuqua’.
After a few minutes on the ground with medical personnel, who were examining her left knee, Achonwa was helped to her feet. After a loud yell to her teammates, she gingerly walked to the dressing room.
With about a minute left in the game, with her knee obviously immobilized, Achonwa emerged from the locker room and finished the game on the bench with her teammates.
Her double-double – 19 points and 15 rebounds – was long forgotten. The heroics she came up with in the first half when Kayla McBride played just four minutes because of foul trouble were a distant memory.
The page had already turned. And the next chapter looks tenuous, at best.
Irish coach Muffet McGraw said Achonwa will undergo an MRI Tuesday. No other information was given. Reading faces told a story of concern. Watching a medical person talk to a university representative was telling. The medical person had a negative headshake. The university rep responded with a cringe.
Saying the celebration was dampened is an understatement. Players, coaches and even the fans who stuck around to watch the Irish get the hardware and trim the net were hardly giddy.
Sometimes, reality can spoil the fun.
“It sucked the air right out of the room,” McGraw said. “We don’t know what (the extent of the injury) is yet, but it’s unfortunate. It was a really hard foul. One of many hard fouls in the game.
“You hate to see a player go down like that.”
Achonwa was not available for comment after the game.
The Irish played the first half with one All-American tied behind their back. McBride hardly broke a sweat before she was watching the final 16 minutes from the bench with two fouls and two missed shots as her only etches on the scorebook. Jewell Loyd (21 points) and Achonwa (11 points, 11 rebounds) were good enough to stake Notre Dame to a 12-point lead.
Against a team like Baylor, the Irish were able to make up for the deficiency.
How Notre Dame will tackle either Louisville or Maryland in the Final Four semifinal without Achonwa – if that happens to be the case – will be much more intriguing.
And don’t even think about UConn just yet.
Quality post players are hard to come by.
All of a sudden, 6-3 Taya Reimer – last year’s national high school player of the year – could experience a role reversal. In 10 minutes against Baylor, Reimer had a quite unspectacular four points, four rebounds, four fouls, one turnover and one block.
From role player to prime-time.
Not to be overlooked was 6-1 Ariel Braker’s 10 points, six boards, two assists, one block and four steals. Her steal No. 4 was critical. Shortly after Achonwa was injured, with the Irish up by 13, Braker bolted into the passing lane, picked off the pass, ran the floor and was fouled on the layup. Two free throws later, the outcome was iced.
“She was the ‘X’ factor today,” McGraw said of Braker. “She was able to convert on some breakaways and a two-on-one. They left her open a bit.
“What she did defensively and rebounding-wise, it sometimes gets overlooked.”
That won’t be the case next weekend. Of course, if Achonwa’s not able to go, defenses will likely play the Irish differently.
Lots of things might change for Notre Dame. Thirty-six wins worth of chemistry could go right out the window.
ND Nation won’t allow itself to exhale until the results of Achonwa’s MRI are in.
If Achonwa’s knee is found to be stable and healthy?
Now that would be worth a party.