Injured Achonwa turns coach for Irish

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – On crutches, Natalie Achonwa hobbled onto the court at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville for Notre Dame’s Final Four practice on Saturday.

She clapped her hands when teammates made layups, shouted out instructions to make crisp cuts to the basket, and exhorted post players to box out on rebound drills.

The senior post player who helped lead Notre Dame to a 36-0 record and a fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four, has been relegated to a de facto coach as a result of a torn ACL injury she suffered in Monday’s regional championship victory against Baylor.

“I’m pretty much doing what I did all year, as far as communicating and being open and giving people tips whenever I can,” said Achonwa, who averaged 14.9 points and 7.7 rebounds this season. “I’m keeping that role going of being there for people when they have questions.”

Achonwa was the player on the court who knew where all of the other players were supposed to be, who they were supposed to be guarding, who they were supposed to be screening against.

“Natalie has always been a coach,” Irish assistant coach Carol Owens said. “She’s always talking in practice, and now, she’s channeling her coaching abilities a lot more.”

Leadership is a constant focus for the Irish. Achonwa has embraced the responsibility, and developed a voice that commands respect among the Irish players. An Irish coach can say something to players, and they listen, but when Achonwa tells a teammate how to get through a screen, how to read a defense, how to deal with a player that she has dealt with, it has a different kind of impact.

“I think that because the team respects Natalie so much, they hang on to every word she says,” Owens said. “She’s been in Taya’s (Reimer) ear the past couple of days … she takes how she played within our offense and translates that to Taya and Markisha (Wright), and they really listen and respond.”

Big arenas

Some long-range shooters have talked about the difficulty of coping with the depth of large arenas.

Notre Dame’s Michaela Mabrey loves playing in big arenas, like Nashville’s 17,681-capacity Bridgestone Arena.

“I don’t even notice the background,” Mabrey said. “I’m focused on the basket.”

ACC pride

Notre Dame and Maryland give the Atlantic Coast Conference two teams in the Final Four, snapping a seven-year drought in which the league didn’t have any members in the Final Four. The only other time the ACC had multiple teams in the Final Four was in 2006, when Maryland, Duke and North Carolina reached that level. Maryland beat Duke for the national title that season.

“I’m really ecstatic, but I wish they weren’t playing each other, because I think they’re both good enough to keep playing,” ACC senior associate commissioner Nora Lynn Finch said.

Finch said the presence of two ACC teams signals the strength of the conference, and that she expects to see a consistent ACC presence at the forefront of college women’s basketball. A record eight ACC teams made the tournament this season.

“The ACC is committed to women’s basketball, and our member institutions are committed to women’s basketball,” Finch said. “We nearly had a third team here, North Carolina, so we are very pleased with the showing our teams have had.”

NCAA dancing

Notre Dame players got a taste of Nashville culture when they arrived in Music City on Thursday night. The Irish were treated to country music, and hit the dance floor to do some line dancing.

“It’s something I have in my back pocket, in case this basketball thing doesn’t work out,” Irish senior guard Kayla McBride said with a laugh.

McBride’s teammates said she’s the best dancer on the team, and easily adapted to the country-style footwork.

“My parents do line dancing, maybe not necessarily to country music, but they line dance, so it was easy for me to catch on,” McBride said.

According to McBride, cultural and fun experiences are important to get the players’ minds off the anxiety of playing in the Final Four.

“You get so wrapped up in the game, you forget this is supposed to be one of the most important experiences of your life,” McBride said. “It’s important to have some fun.”

Underdog role

Maryland coach Brenda Frese said the 28-6 Terrapins are holding the underdog card, and they aren’t about to let unbeaten Notre Dame take it away from them because Achonwa is sidelined with a torn ACL.

“Yeah, yeah, Notre Dame can't play that card,” Frese said. “They've been to four straight Final Fours, so you're not an underdog.”

Frese said the Irish still have the best 1-2 punch in the country in Jewell Loyd (18.8 points, 6.4 rebounds a game) and McBride (17.2 points, 5.2 rebounds).

“Everyone's still picking them, so there's no way they can be the underdog,” Frese said. “They can try.”

Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa and Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw sign autographs during the NCAA Women's Final Four media day events on Saturday, April 5, 2014, inside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)