Notebook: Special time for Notre Dame guard Hannah Huffman

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – When the bracket for the 2015 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament was revealed March 16 to Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw and her team at the Club Naimoli inside the Purcell Pavilion, one Irish player’s eyes immediately lit up.

Junior reserve guard Hannah Huffman saw that if Oklahoma City Regional No. 1 seed Notre Dame took care of business in its portion of the bracket, the Irish could be playing against a school 51 miles from her northern California home in Diablo — Stanford.

Notre Dame and No. 4 seed Stanford did their jobs and met Friday night in the regional semifinal round at the Chesapeake Energy Arena, and the 5-foot-9 Huffman, with her N.D. athletic alumnus father Lon (1986, golf) watching, was a big reason why the second-ranked Irish advanced to Sunday’s 8:30 p.m. championship game against Baylor.

In 20 minutes of action, during which it seemed she only caught her breath during media timeouts, Huffman had four points (2-for-2 shooting), five rebounds and three assists, one block and one steal as 34-2 Notre Dame won its 20th straight game and eliminated the Cardinal, 81-60.

“Hannah has done a great job all year of bringing us energy,” McGraw said Friday night. “(I was) Really, really pleased with her numbers. Statistically, she makes some great passes, she doesn’t turn the ball over, she rebounds, she defends, and she does everything we need her to do.”

And Huffman does it by understanding the team comes first.

“(Playing Stanford) was definitely something that I thought about (since the bracket was revealed),” Huffman said. “But I knew we had to take it one game at a time. We first had to take care of Montana and DePaul.”

Huffman’s play, especially during her 14 minutes in the second half, was instrumental in the Irish pulling away after Stanford had closed a 13-point Irish lead to four points with 14:49 to play in regulation. McGraw inserted her into the game at the 14:04 mark, and a little under two minutes later Huffman blocked a layup by Briana Roberson.

But Huffman really got going with a little more than eight minutes remaining when she was credited with a steal and then a three-quarter-court break for a layup that upped the Irish lead to 11, 63-52. She then assisted on a bucket by Brianna Turner and finally she knocked down a 15-footer off an assist from Lindsay Allen to push the lead to 15, 67-52, forcing Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer to call a timeout with 6:55 left.

That’s when the Irish fans in attendance with the pep band members following in unison chanted, “Han-nah Huff-man! Han-nah Huff-man!”

“That brought tears to my eyes,” said Huffman’s off-court roommate Michaela Mabrey, who celebrated her 21st birthday Saturday.

“I thought it was pretty cool,” added Notre Dame’s energizer-rabbit reserve Madison Cable, “especially with her Dad here.”

Following the game, Huffman got to shake hands with her former Carondelet High School teammate Erica Payne, a senior at Stanford who had three points.

“We had a few nice moments,” Huffman said. “I told her how proud I was of her, that she had done a great job, and she said the same thing to me.”

Meet the new boss

When Notre Dame and Baylor meet Sunday night, it will be 363 days after their last meeting – an 88-69 Irish victory over the Bears in the South Bend Regional championship that sent Notre Dame to the Women’s Final Four for the fourth straight season.

Natalie Achonwa, then a senior forward, made the trip to Nashville, Tenn., but watched it on the bench. As you recall, she suffered a serious knee injury late in the Baylor game that later required major surgery, forcing Achonwa to miss what would have been her rookie WNBA season for the Indiana Fever.

“My foot landed perfectly but my knee buckled,” said Achonwa, who left the floor with 19 points and 15 rebounds in 27 minutes of action. The surgery took place on April 18 and Achonwa could not walk on the leg for two months afterward because it required repair for a micro fracture where the femur and tibia meet.

The Canadian Olympian is back at her alma mater this year as an operations specialist and rehabbing her knee to get ready for the upcoming Fever season in the WNBA. Achonwa, who has been commuting from Indianapolis, begins camp on May 17 with hopes of being ready for the season opener at Chicago on June 5.

Lately, Achonwa has been getting some hands-on attention from her professional head coach, former Purdue standout Stephanie White, who also happens to partner with Beth Mowins on ESPN broadcasts.

“I’ve worked out with her (White) whenever we’re on ESPN,” Achonwa said Saturday. “We’re planning a workout tomorrow. It’s nice to have her working with me.”

White sees the benefits, too, especially with the international experience the 6-foot-3 Achonwa brings. She also likes how Achonwa got off the floor 363 days ago and openly encouraged her teammates to finish off the victory against the Bears.

“It isn’t often you get that from a post player,” White said. “I’ve grown to appreciate Natalie’s leadership – she’s vocal, she has a high basketball IQ and is a great teammate.”

White plans to ease Achonwa into things starting with camp.

“The organization and I realize this (Achonwa’s rehabilitation) is a long-term thing,” she said. “We want to be smart because we feel she has a great future.”

Giving an assist

Sophomore point guard Lindsay Allen, who scored a career-high 28 against Stanford, leads the Irish with 5.2 assists per game. Her counterpart for Baylor, junior Niya Johnson, leads the nation with 8.9.

Allen is big-time impressed with Johnson, who helped her team to an 81-66 semifinal victory over Iowa.

“Obviously, 16 turnovers and zero turnovers is pretty impressive,” Allen said. “I’m a little jealous.''

From left, Notre Dame guard Hannah Huffman, guard Lindsay Allen, guard Jewell Loyd, and guard Michaela Mabrey (23) celebrate against Stanford during the second half of a women's college basketball regional semifinal game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 27, 2015, in Oklahoma City. Notre Dame won 81-60. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)