Muffet McGraw has a lot to like in frontline depth for Notre Dame

John Fineran
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – If Muffet McGraw, Carol Owens and the Notre Dame women’s basketball team carried away anything from last year season, it’s this: What’s up front counts – a lot.

When forward Natalie Achonwa took a tumble late and suffered a severe knee injury in Notre Dame’s 88-69 regional victory over Baylor in South Bend last March 31, the air from 36 straight victories that had filled the remarkable Irish flying balloon began to leak out. With Achonwa, the team’s most vocal leader, reduced to cheerleading duties at the Women’s Final Four, Notre Dame managed to beat Maryland 87-61 in the semifinals before Connecticut exploited the weak Irish frontline in a 79-58 championship victory on April 8.

This coming season, McGraw’s 28th as head coach, the Irish hope to be dealing from numbers, experience and talent on the front line.

“It’s the most depth we’ve ever had in the post,” McGraw said Wednesday afternoon at the team’s media day in the Purcell Pavilion. “We feel we can do so many things. For instance, we can go big with our (Nos.) 3, 4 and 5s. And having C.O. (Owens) working with them has taken a load off my mind.”

Owens, the most senior of McGraw’s assistants, is starting her 15th season at Notre Dame and the fifth straight in her second tenure after serving as head coach at her alma mater, Northern Illinois. She is recognized as one of the top post-position coaches in women’s basketball today, and for good reason: Just look at those she has tutored.

Achonwa, a Canadian Olympian, was a WNBA first-round draft choice of the Indiana Fever despite the resulting surgery that caused her to miss her first professional season. Owens also mentored Devereaux Peters, a 2012 All-American and first-round choice of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx; Katryna Gaither, Becca Bruszewski and two members of the 2001 national champions, Kelley Siemon and All-American Ruth Riley, who recently returned to her alma mater for her MBA after winning two WNBA titles.

“It all starts with the coaching staff,” said Achonwa, who is rehabbing her knee while serving as an operations specialist. “(Owens) has a history of improving her players over four years.”

Owens is as demanding of her charges as she is of herself, and leading up to this preseason she told those returning – senior Markisha Wright (6-foot-2 forward) and sophomores Diamond Thompson (6-4 center), Kristina Nelson (6-3 forward) and Taya Reimer (6-3 forward) – what she wanted from them.

“As much as I demand of them, I want them to demand among themselves,” said Owens, who saw considerable growth in the Women’s Final Four games from Wright and Reimer in particular.

In the semifinal victory over Maryland, Wright stepped in to record season highs with 12 points and nine rebounds. Reimer, who led the team with 52 blocks for the season, contributed nine points, five rebounds and four assists. But Connecticut’s front-line dynamic duo of Breanna Stewart and Stefanie Dolson proved to be too much for Wright and Reimer, who combined for just six points and four rebounds, all by Reimer.

“I told them to learn from that opportunity and that they needed to come back prepared to compete,” Owens added.

“Markisha is one of best post defenders we’ve got and she brings a physicalness to the position,” Owens said. “Taya is more of a finesse player – she can post up, rebound and run our break. From spring to this fall, Diamond has been our most improved player. ‘Coco’ (Nelson) is still recovering from an injury but she will help us.”

The returning four all came back in great shape and have been joined by two promising freshmen, a pair of McDonald All-Americans in 6-2 Kathryn Westbeld and 6-3 Brianna Turner, the Gatorade National Player of the Year who already has received preseason All-America mention.

Wright has accepted her leadership role – she’s a tri-captain along with guards Whitney Holloway and Michaela Mabrey.

“Now is my turn to step up and share what I’ve learned from Natalie and the others,” Wright said.

Things are indeed looking up upfront for Notre Dame.

Notre Dame's Kristina Nelson (21), Diamond Thompson (35) and Brianna Turner (11) will be a part of the frontcourt for Notre Dame women's basketball this season. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)