Board work provides serious boost to Notre Dame

TYLER JAMES
South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In case of emergency, break glass.

Notre Dame did just that without senior leader Natalie Achonwa. But no one knew the plan would work so well.

The backboards inside Bridgestone Arena remained intact after the 87-61 Irish victory over Maryland but not as a reflection of Notre Dame’s rebounding domination.

From the very first possession of the game, the Irish crashed the glass with an unrelenting intensity. Ariel Braker grabbed a rebound. Taya Reimer grabbed a rebound. Jewell Loyd grabbed a rebound.

Sloppy shooting, sure, but the Irish fought for three offensive rebounds to make their first basket. Maryland finished the entire game with only four offensive rebounds.

The aftermath: a staggering 50-21 rebounding margin in favor of Notre Dame sans Achonwa in a Final Four win.

“All year it's been 'Notre Dame can't rebound. Notre Dame can't box out,’” said Achonwa, the team’s leading rebounder forced to watch from the bench with a season-ending knee injury. “For us to come out and to dominate the boards like that was so exciting. Lindsay Allen got in there and got a scrappy one time. To see that from your point guard to your center that everyone's rebounding, it was a great team effort.”

The last time the teams played in January, Notre Dame won the rebounding margin by just two and the game by four. The glass disparity Sunday night enabled a blowout victory.

“We thought the game would be won on the boards,” said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. “I think it was. To hold them to four offensive rebounds for the game is an amazing accomplishment. When you look at our rebounds everybody had a few. That was our game plan. Everybody had to do their job. Everybody had to do one or two more than they usually do.”

Everybody but Markisha Wright. Little could have been more surprising than the performance from Wright, a reserve post player averaging 10.3 minutes, 2.1 rebounds and 1.5 points this season. Wright herself admitted she didn’t imagine her 12-point, nine-rebound performance as a possibility.

“But I went out there with my head up knowing that I needed to rebound,” Wright said, “and a lot of my points came off just rebounding.”

That’s exactly what she did. She converted three of her four offensive rebounds into six points. The first two came on consecutive possessions to push the Irish ahead 17-15 in the first half.

“My first two rebounds when I got put-backs, I'm like, 'Oh, OK. Just cut. They're not going to really box me out.' I just tried to cut as hard as I could every time,” Wright said.

She continued to go to work along with Loyd, Braker, Reimer and others. Sometimes rebounding is just a matter of effort. That’s how the 5-foot-10 Loyd matched Wright’s output of nine rebounds to tie for the team high.

“We were determined. We were not trying to settle on standing around,” Wright said. “We didn't want to stand around where they could box us out. We always tried cutting and getting around them.”

The Irish couldn’t have asked for more from Wright, even if a couple teammates teased her in the postgame locker room for not getting a 10th rebound for a double-double.

"What a great day to bring it out,” McGraw said. “She really was great. I think she's been ready all year long. For her, this is a moment she's been looking forward to – the opportunity to get out there and play a little bit more than she has been. She really took advantage of it.”

But more will be required. The frontcourt of Connecticut awaits.

"That's nothing,” Loyd said. “Kisha, she's unstoppable. We see that all the time in practice. So for her to perform at the Final Four in front of everyone, that's very exciting.”

Notre Dame's Markisha Wright delivered a big game Sunday in place of Natalie Achonwa during the NCAA Women's Final Four inside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)