Notre Dame women savor special season

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Alley-oops to sophomore sensation Jewell Loyd.

Natalie Achonwa pulling herself up off the court after a season-ending knee injury to exhort her teammates to finish the job in the regional championship against Baylor.

Kayla McBride climbing the ladder to cut down the nets at Purcell Pavalion.

Images of a remarkable 2013-2014 season were brought to life again Tuesday at the Notre Dame women’s basketball banquet at the Joyce Center Fieldhouse.

Notre Dame finished the season 37-1, reaching the national championship game, where the Irish lost to Connecticut, 79-58. It was the fourth consecutive Final Four appearance by the Irish.

In its inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Notre Dame went 16-0 and won the league tournament.

“When you look at what we accomplished and what the seniors were able to do for the program, and how everybody stepped up and did something good at some point, it really was an amazing year,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “I think we had so many questions at the beginning of the season, who would play the point, who would score ... so many things, but they were all answered.”

McBride, Achonwa and fellow senior Ariel Braker leave Notre Dame as the winningest class in the women’s basketball program (138-15 with four Final Fours) in their careers.

“It’s tough to say good-bye, because Notre Dame has been so much to me, on and off the court, from coaches to the people in my dorm,” McBride said. “Knowing that I’ll never put that Notre Dame uniform on and play for these fans again ... it’s hard to let it go.”

Achonwa told the returning players that they won’t get better if people only told them nice things. She urged the players to respect and embrace the honesty of the coaching staff. She also said that the three pillars of God, Country and Notre Dame would be constants in her life.

McBride, a 5-foot-11 guard, was named the Woody Miller Player of the Year (media vote) and Notre Dame Monogram Club Most Valuable Player (team vote).

McBride, who was drafted No. 3 overall by the San Antonio Stars and reports Sunday to the WNBA team’s training camp, averaged 17.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.8 points her senior season.

“I have so much faith and confidence in my teammates, I’m always thinking of them,” McBride said. “I’m appreciative that they thought of me this way.”

Achonwa, who was drafted by the WNBA’s Indiana Fever in the first round, underwent knee surgery Friday for the torn ACL she suffered in the regional championship game against Baylor. Achonwa, who averaged 14.9 points and 7.7 rebounds her senior season, was given the Outstanding Leadership Award.

Other award winners were Jewell Loyd (defense), Michaela Mabrey (most improved), Whitney Holloway (spirit), Hannah Huffman (Rockne Student-Athlete).

McGraw said that the seniors, who were unheralded as a class when they arrived at Notre Dame, taught the younger players valuable lessons.

“I just hope the younger players were paying attention,” McGraw said. “I hope they saw what the seniors were role-modeling.”

McGraw also praised Irish fans. More than 1,000 packed the Joyce Center Fieldhouse for the awards banquet. McGraw said one of the highlights for her was when Irish fans sold out Purcell Pavilion for the regional, and were roaring the Irish to victory.

“A small group of us always get together and we talk about who was the player of the game,” McGraw said. “After the regional, we all said that the fans were the player of the game.”

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, right, celebrates with her assistant coaches following the 87-61 victory over Maryland in the NCAA Women's Final Four basketball game on Sunday, April 6, 2014, inside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN