It's Braker's time to shine for Irish

South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Former Notre Dame women’s basketball player Becca Bruszewski suffered a knee injury in a Sweet 16 victory against Oklahoma during the 2011 NCAA Tournament.

Bruszewski, a 6-foot-1 post who played for Wheeler High School, was doubtful for the regional championship that season against Tennessee. As she rested in her hotel room, Bruszewski turned to then-freshman Ariel Braker.

“I said, ‘Ariel, if I can’t play, it’s your time to shine,’” Bruszewski recalled. “I made her repeat it over and over, ‘It’s my time to shine, it’s my time to shine ...’”

Bruszewski was able to overcome the injury, played against Tennessee in the regional final and helped Notre Dame reach the Final Four. Notre Dame beat Connecticut and finished national runner-up, losing to Texas A&M in the title game.

When Bruszewski heard that current Irish post Natalie Achowna suffered a torn ACL that will keep her out of the Final Four, Bruszewski’s first thought was to get in touch with Braker.

“With Ace’s injury, I reached out to Ariel and said, ‘It couldn’t be more true now,’” Bruszewski told Braker. “It’s her time to shine, as a captain, as a leader, as someone who has been there (the Final Four) three times, going on four.”

Notre Dame will count on Braker, a 6-1 senior from Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., to fill the void left by Achonwa’s injury.

No. 1 seed Notre Dame (36-0) plays No. 4 seed Maryland (28-6) in a national semifinal game at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday at Bridgestone Arena (ESPN). No. 1 seed Connecticut (38-0) faces No. 2 seed Stanford (33-3) in the second national semifinal game. The national championship game is Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. (ESPN).

Bruszewski is watching the Irish from afar. She is playing for a professional women’s basketball team in Kirovograd, Ukraine, averaging 10.9 points and 6.8 rebounds a game. Bruszewski is about six hours by car from the recent civil unrest in Ukraine, centered in Kiev. She is about eight hours from the Crimea’s largest city, Sevastopol, where Russian troops intervened. Her season was interrupted for a month by the riots and occupation, but she never saw first-hand any of the drama unfolding in the Ukraine.

Many times during her senior season, Bruszewski would work out with Braker separately to help her adjust to the college game.

“I would say that Ariel has come light years from where she was as a freshman,” Bruszewski said. “I think every freshman has that uncertain kind of … panic … misunderstanding of their role when they come in.”

Braker faced a Notre Dame system dramatically different from high school. She led Grosse Pointe Woods North to a state title in 2008. She then had to learn a new role in a complex offense and defense, and on a team that featured, at the time, three future WNBA first-round draft picks.

Braker sat on the bench most of her freshman and sophomore seasons. Bruszewski could relate. She also sat early in her career.

“I just preached to Ariel to learn from people’s mistakes, because that’s what I did,” Bruszewski said. “She plays her role now, and she’s become the X-Factor when it comes to blocking a shot, getting easy put-backs when no one boxes her out.”

Braker emerged as a starter as a junior. Having started 35 games this season, she averages 4.2 points and 4.8 rebounds. She’s also fourth on the team in two key areas, steals (45) and blocked shots (13).

Braker also has a history of stepping up in big games. She averages 6.9 rebounds a game in NCAA play. During Monday’s regional championship victory against Baylor, she scored 10 points with seven rebounds and four steals.

“I just have to be aggressive and box out,” Braker said of what she needs to bring the Irish with Achonwa unable to play. “That’s the one thing we’ve been focusing on, putting a body on someone, and I think I’m able to do that, and then go get the ball.”

Notre Dame’s biggest concern with Braker is how many minutes she can offer. She averages 17.1 minutes a game, down from 20.8 last season. She has been hobbled by nagging injuries and knee surgery throughout her career, which limits her practice time.

“A lot of medication has helped, and just being mentally tough about it,” Braker said of dealing with constant point. “Coach (Muffet McGraw) has done a good job of monitoring that I’m not doing too much in practice so I’m ready for games.”

McGraw said that Braker’s constant sparring with adversity has made her one of the team’s toughest players.

“For the last three years, probably at some point, the trainer or doctor has said, ‘I don’t know if she’s going to make it through the year,’” McGraw said. “But she makes it through.”

Braker spent much of this season in a boot following games because of an Achilles problem.

“When you have those kind of injuries, sometimes she looks like she’s about 75 years old, before she limbers up and gets loose,” McGraw said. “Ariel has a tremendous toughness … she’s the one diving for loose balls and taking charges.”

Bruszewski believes Braker’s athletic ability, length and understanding of her role will enable her to give the Irish what they need this weekend.

“Ariel can absolutely do this,” Bruszewski said. “Every game, you see her bringing something new to the table, a clutch rebound and put-back, a clutch blocked shot, or a clutch steal, which just shows that her game is really evolving.”

What is important for the Irish is that Braker plays within herself, and plays to her skills. She had learned to take advantage of her length. She runs the court in transition. She soars to block shots. And more shots by All-American wings Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd should open it up on the blocks for Braker.

Defensively, Bruszewski said that Braker won’t be isolated in matchups against Maryland’s 6-2 force Alyssa Thomas, or Connecticut’s 6-5 Stefanie Dolson.

“The thing with Notre Dame ... it’s not a one-on-one, lock-up match-up,” Bruszewski said. “For Notre Dame, we’re all about team defense, help, rotation.”

Braker said that being a senior playing in the Final Four will fuel her effort and performance. The experience of playing in three previous Final Fours will be an asset.

“It takes away the nervous feelings,” Braker said. “You get used to it, so I’ll just be able to go in and play my game.”

Bruszewski has no doubt that Braker will deliver.

“This is Ariel’s time to go out there and help her team any way possible, to be the poise,” Bruszewski said. “She’ll be amazing.”

Notre Dame forward Ariel Braker (44) will have the chance to do even more this weekend at the Final Four with the season-ending knee injury to fellow senior Natalie Achonwa. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)