Irish rally behind Achonwa to title game

Will play UConn in meeting of undefeated squads

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Team of destiny?

We'll see. That will be answered Tuesday night.

Hard-nosed, focused, mentally-tough bunch of competitors?

That was confirmed Sunday night when the Notre Dame women's basketball team rallied behind its fallen All-American Natalie Achonwa to beat Maryland, 87-61.

Technical terms refer to that as a good ol' Irish keister kicking.

Next step, history -- for someone.

For the first time in NCAA basketball history -- men or women -- two undefeated teams will play for the national championship. The Irish (37-0) will take on Connecticut (39-0)to settle the squabble of "who's best."

Notre Dame earned its bid in impressive fashion, even with its best inside player in street clothes and her left knee immobilized. Achonwa never played a second Sunday night, but her presence was significant.

On the back of the Irish warmups was "11 Ace," Achonwa's number and nickname, a tribute to the senior who was instrumental in getting them to this point.

Achonwa carried the Irish on her back for a good part of the season. Sunday, her teammates returned the favor.

The idea for the motivational ploy came from an unlikely source. Seldom-used freshman post Diamond Thompson came up with the suggestion.

"It was kind of like the Kevin Ware (Louisville last season) thing," Thompson said. "He went down (with a serious leg injury) and his team banded together (to win the national title). (Achonwa) led us; her contributions got us here.

"In practice and in the games, she's still a big part of it. What better way to honor her than putting her on our backs?

"I'm glad she liked it. She was surprised."

"It was really touching," said Achonwa, who was very active on the bench. "I didn't know what was happening. When I came out on the bus and saw everyone's shirt, it really touched my heart to know that no matter what happens to anyone else, we'll have each other's back.

"Literally, they put me on their back this game. It was really touching to see."

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw wasn't involved in the wardrobe adjustment, but felt it certainly was the right thing to do.

"We're all doing it for Natalie," McGraw said. "Every time we look at her, we get more inspired.

"I said, 'What a great idea.' I wish I had thought about it. It was just a phenomenal idea.

"(The players) wanted to rally around her in some way. That was the best way we could do it."

Actually, a 26-point blowout and an opportunity to play for a national championship is a longer lasting tribute than some writing on a shirt.

"The culture of the program is built to ignore obstacles," said Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. "It doesn't matter: Fouls, injuries ... You run your system and you play.

"It also says a lot about Natalie's leadership. At practice and in the game, she's all over the place. She's coaching; she's encouraging; on the bench she was coaching.

"That's a program. It's not about her. It's about her team and that's her focus. I'm so incredibly proud of her and the way the team responded to her."

Swarbrick admitted to being a bit concerned -- until the opening tip.

"You know what I liked? They were loose," Swarbrick said. "I was a little worried they'd be tense under the circumstances: Huge game, not having (Achonwa). (Kayla McBride) took the floor with this big grin on her face. I said, -- Alright, they're OK.'"

That's the culture of the program.

Team of destiny? Maybe.

Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa, center, takes a one-handed shot as the Irish warm up before the NCAA Women's Final Four basketball game on Sunday inside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. Achonwa suffered a torn ACL as she went down with a knee injury in last Monday's Elite Eight matchup against Baylor.(SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)