Notre Dame’s McBride, Achonwa selected in WNBA’s first round

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

Former Notre Dame players Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa intended to keep their emotions under control for the WNBA draft Monday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.

Their game faces didn’t get past the first selection.

“It was literally like a tornado of emotions,” said Achonwa, whose season-ending knee injury brought uncertainty into her draft status. “It was a combination of nerves and a little bit of excitement … there was so much going on.”

McBride and Achonwa were each selected in the first round.

San Antonio selected McBride, a native of Erie, Pa., with the third pick in the draft, and Indiana took Achonwa, a native of Guelph, Ont., with the ninth pick.

McBride's tough exterior melted away quickly.

“I tried to act like I wasn’t nervous the whole time,” McBride said. “I was like, this is no big deal.”

Then, WNBA president Laurel Richie stepped to the podium to start the draft.

“It was an emotional rush, an unbelievable feeling,” McBride said. “My heart started beating so fast.”

First-round selections of McBride and Achonwa gives Notre Dame five first-round picks in the past three seasons.

Deveraux Peters (No. 3, Minnesota Lynx) and Natalie Novosel (No. 8, Washington Mystics) were selected in the first round in 2012, and South Bend’s Skylar Diggins (No. 3, Tulsa Shock) was drafted in the first round in 2013. The only other first-round pick for Notre Dame was Ruth Riley (No. 5, Miami) in 2001.

“I think that when you look at our success over the past few years and you look at the success our players have had going off to the WNBA, it’s no surprise we’ve been to four Final Fours in a row with the caliber of player we’ve had, and the way the players get better every year,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think the development from the staff, the assistant coaches and our style of play really fits in well with the WNBA.”

McBride, a 5-foot-11 guard, averaged 17.6 points and 5.3 rebounds a game this season in helping Notre Dame roll up a 37-1 record and a fourth consecutive trip to the Final Four. She also averaged 3.8 assists.

Achonwa, a 6-3 post, averaged 14.9 points and 7.7 assists. She suffered a torn ACL in the regional championship game against Baylor, and missed playing in the Final Four. Achonwa’s knee injury will prevent her from playing in the 2014 WNBA season.

McBride scored 1,876 points in her Notre Dame career (fifth all-time) and is first in Irish women’s basketball history in free-throw shooting percentage (.882).

“I talked with (San Antonio) coach (Dan) Hughes right after the draft, and he told me he thinks this is a really good fit,” McBride said. “He compared San Antonio to Notre Dame and how they work things, and that made me feel more comfortable, because I loved playing for coach McGraw and Notre Dame.”

Hughes said McBride’s offensive prowess and her defensive skills made her the best player available at the No. 3 spot. He loves her versatility and the fact that she is considered a big guard.

“She is a premier shooter, she has a strong mid-range game and she’s a two-to-one passer,” Hughes said of McBride. “She has size and is a good rebounder, which is a unique set for the WNBA … it is something we couldn’t pass up.”

McBride will be going against her former Irish teammate, Skylar Diggins, in two preseason games, Friday, May 2, in Tulsa, and Tuesday, May 6, in San Antonio. The Stars also play Tulsa twice in the first five games of the regular season, Saturday, May 17, in San Antonio, and Wednesday, May 28, in Tulsa. San Antonio will also play at Tulsa on Thursday, July 17, and hosts the Shock on Tuesday, July 22.

San Antonio will play at Indiana on Saturday, July 5, and at Chicago on Sunday, Aug. 17.

“Sky is a competitor and I’m a competitor,” McBride said. “It goes back to practice, because Skylar and I were never on the same team, and we both pushed each other and brought out the best in each other.”

Last season, San Antonio finished 12-22, 14 games behind Western Division regular-season champion Minnesota. Injuries hobbled the Stars last season — they lost Becky Hammon, Sophia Young-Malcolm and Danielle Robinson to a series of season-ending injuries.

Achonwa scored 1,546 points for Notre Dame, 12th all-time. She is fourth in rebounds (970) and fifth in double-doubles (28).

Indiana Fever head coach Lin Dunn, who guided the Fever to the 2012 WNBA crown, was impressed with Achonwa’s ability to run the court, yet play physical inside as a defender, rebounder and scorer off the blocks. Achonwa’s leadership skills and high basketball IQ made her a top prospect despite her injury.

Dunn said Achonwa would have likely been a top three pick in 2015, but she didn’t want to take the chance that Achonwa would be available in next season’s draft.

“We’ve liked Achonwa all along,” Dunn said. “We’ve been following her during her whole career at Notre Dame.”

Achonwa received reassurances from Fever star Tamicka Catchings about being considered a top prospect despite suffering an injury her senior season.

“I know I’m going to take this year to come back better than I was in college,” Achonwa said. “Rookies have a difficult time just adjusting to being a pro, so for me to have this chance to sit back and watch everyone will really help me when I play in 2015.”

McGraw beamed at the two first-round selections for the Irish. Notre Dame is only the second school to have a run of three consecutive seasons with a first-round lottery pick (top four selections). Connecticut is the other school with a three-run lottery pick run in the WNBA.

“I’m bursting at the seams,” McGraw said. “I feel like their mom and their coach all rolled into one, being so proud and happy for them, that all of their hard work paid off for them.”

Notre Dame’s Kayla McBride, right, holds up San Antonio Stars jersey with WNBA president Laurel J. Richie after San Antonio selected McBride as the No. 3 pick in the WNBA basketball draft in, Monday, April 14, 2014, in Uncasville, Conn. AP Photo/JESSICA HILL