McGraw, Notre Dame women love the underdog role

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — No matter what outfit Muffet McGraw plans to strut at the Final Four, the fact is she doesn’t wear pity well.

In fact, it’s quite unbecoming for the Notre Dame women’s basketball coach.

But, put her in the underdog role and watch how quick the smile comes to her face.

Losing All-American senior post Natalie Achonwa to a knee injury against Baylor would have brought some coaches to their knees. McGraw, though, would have none of that. The circumstances surrounding Sunday night’s semifinal meeting with Maryland are just another challenge the Irish will deal with in what could still be a special season.

“We’re a little bit tired of the apologies and, ‘I feel sorry for you,’ because we don’t feel sorry for ourselves,” McGraw said Thursday after practice, before the team departed for Nashville. “We want to get out there to play. We appreciate that no-body thinks we can win. That gives us added incentive.

“I want (the players) to hear (that people are counting them out) all day long. That’s a good thing for us. It puts a big chip on our shoulder.”

Whether she was putting up a strong front, or deep down in her heart really felt that way, Achonwa wouldn’t allow any sort of negativity filter through her thoughts and emotions.

“I don’t feel sorry for myself, so there’s no reason for anyone to feel sorry for me,” Achonwa said. “At the end of the day, everything happens for a reason. I’m just blessed that I’m up, I can walk, I’m alive. We’re still going to a Final Four.

“It’s not over for me; I still don’t believe it’s over for me. (After the Baylor game), those were tears of excitement; the fact that we’re going to another Final Four. (Kayla McBride) and Ariel (Braker), we’ve been to four. It’s pure excitement.”

Reality won’t hit until the Irish return home. That’s when plans will be made for surgery to repair the ACL tear in her left knee and evaluate how that will impact her rookie year in the WNBA.

Until then, Achonwa may be as active on the bench as she has been on the floor (14.9 points, 7.7 rebounds).

“They say that adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it,” McGraw said. “I don’t think there’s a better leader in any player that we’ve ever had, that can come through something like this, with this kind of adversity and still come out on top.

“She is such the consummate team player; somebody that knows this is such an important time for the team and not her. She’s on the sidelines encouraging, coaching. She’s doing everything she can to help us win.”

McGraw named freshman Taya Reimer to replace Achonwa in the starting lineup against the Terps. Dealing with 6-2 All-American Alyssa Thomas will be the prime assignment for Reimer.

“(Thomas) is really a difficult challenge,” McGraw said. “We’ve played so many good players this year. She really played well against us (29 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists in a four-point Irish win Jan. 27). Keeping her off the boards is the biggest challenge. She’s such a good rebounder. That will be a team job.”

Don’t be surprised to see Notre Dame go to a four-guard lineup at times, with either Madison Cable or Michaela Mabrey replacing Reimer or Braker at times.

Mabrey, a 3-point specialist, hit 4-of-5 3-pointers in Notre Dame’s NCAA Tournament debut against Robert Morris. In the next three games combined, she has connected on 1-of-3.

“I’m living through my teammates,” Achonwa said. “I’m living through Kayla McBride. I’m living through Ariel Braker. We’ve been through everything together. Everything they’ve experienced, I’ve experienced with them. I’m just thrilled to be able to be there and watch Notre Dame basketball work.”

It’s a program in which the sum is bigger than the parts.

Al Lesar: 574-235-6318

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw is undaunted after losing standout post player Natalie Achonwa heading into the Final Four. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)