Achonwa injury gives Notre Dame women chance to shine


South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Stop being the “glass half empty” sort of Negative Nellie when it comes to the Notre Dame women’s basketball team.

Contrary to popular belief, Natalie Achonwa is not the first star athlete to suffer an unfortunate injury at a critical time.

This is an opportunity for the Irish program to shine. All season, coach Muffet McGraw has talked about her team’s depth. Well, what better time to prove it than the Final Four?

Really, it’s not that difficult to find a silver lining or two in the cloud that has settled over Notre Dame the past few days.

For starters: Pressure? What pressure? Expectations? Gone.

Achonwa’s injury has allowed the Irish to cash in the chips they’ve accumulated over the season’s first 36 games and roll the dice for the national title with house money.

No one expects Notre Dame to overcome this devastating adversity in just a couple of days. Right? Oh woe is them.

That sentiment is right in Muffet’s wheelhouse. Before it all went south about midseason, Irish men’s coach Mike Brey called himself “the loosest coach in America.” This week, McGraw will get an inkling of what that’s like. Embrace the sense of relief that the microscope won’t be so closely focused, roll up the sleeves and get crackin’.

She’ll work hard, no doubt. McGraw has two former head coaches (Carol Owens and Beth Cunningham) and one talented, young assistant (Niele Ivey), who will certainly get her chance to lead, on her staff. That’s a lot of basketball between them.

Damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead. Let the chips fall where they may. And all those other clichés.

After 36 games, the Irish will be re-inventing themselves. Of course, having two All-Americans — Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd — with which to start that process is a great foundation. The cupboard’s not exactly bare, you know.

That has to be a bit disconcerting for Maryland, Notre Dame’s Sunday night opponent. The Terps gave Notre Dame one of its toughest challenges of the season, a four-point Irish escape late January in College Park.

Take that tape and throw it out the window. Will the Irish come out in a four-guard lineup with either Madison Cable or Michaela Mabrey as the new starter? Is Taya Reimer the likely replacement for Achonwa in the post?

Suddenly, Muffet has cards up her sleeve she hadn’t had to play before. In a sense, the pressure has fallen on Maryland coach Brenda Frese. Coaches have been trained to live by the creed, “If it’s not on tape, it didn’t happen.” In a situation like this, Lou Holtz used to say it’s like “defending against ghosts.”

Nobody knows what Notre Dame is going to do next — and McGraw loves it that way.

Granted, losing an All-American like Achonwa isn’t an ideal circumstance, but pouting or fretting over the hardship isn’t what made McGraw into a Hall of Fame coach.

Last week, Loyd talked about this team having a high basketball IQ. The talent has been there all along. New roles can be learned in a couple days.

Adversity can lead to creativity.

No need to wallow in the pits of self-pity.

Athletes are trained to compete, no matter the situation.

Al Lesar: 574-235-6318

Natalie Achonwa has some trouble removing a portion of the net following Notre Dame's victory over Baylor on Monday at Purcell Pavilion (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)