Georgia Tech brings diverse roster to challenge ND women

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — When Georgia Tech comes to Purcell Pavilion on Sunday, the Yellow Jackets will bring with them tastes of Italy, Finland, Nigeria and Senegal.

No. 5-ranked Notre Dame — as has been the case throughout almost all of its women’s basketball history — will counter with a strictly domestic flavor.

While the number of foreign players has significantly increased within the Atlantic Coast

Conference and elsewhere throughout the NCAA Division I women’s game, the Irish have had, by coach Muffet McGraw’s own count, just one such player over her 32 seasons.

That’s Canadian-born and raised Natalie Achonwa, who wrapped up a decorated ND career in 2014 and stands No. 16 on the program’s all-time scoring chart.

For the foreseeable future at least, Achonwa could remain a novelty, though.

“I feel like there’s enough good players here for us,” McGraw said this week of her philosophy on recruiting outside the country. “I think the level we’re recruiting at, there’s enough good players. We’re not going to go over there looking, but if somebody expressed interest, I think we would follow up on it.”

Standing at the opposite end of that spectrum, at least within the ACC, may be Syracuse.

The No. 18-ranked Orange have a conference-leading seven international players among their 14 scholarship individuals overall.

Those imports include Australian-raised star guard Tiana Mangakahia, a junior who ranks third in the nation in assists, and three of the team’s top four scorers overall.

According to a report last October on syracuse.com, Orange assistant Adeniyi Amadou was hired by head coach Quentin Hillsman in 2016 to “concentrate solely on international recruiting.”

It’s apparently working. The Benin-born and Paris-raised Amadou, besides being responsible for landing Mangakahia, has helped Syracuse bring in three signees from France alone over the last two years.

“I think a lot of coaches really prefer to go overseas,” McGraw said. “I think they feel that they’re getting better players than they could get here.”

After all, here, every program is competing with 350 others in the hunt for Division I talent.

“We sat down and just decided that (foreign recruiting) would be a great equalizer,” Amadou told syracuse.com of a vision he and Hillsman shared. “So instead of going in the states and competing for those 12 to 20 McDonald’s All-Americans, we can go find those same-caliber players overseas and make it a niche.”

The Associated Press reported that during the 2015-16 season there were 275 international players in women’s Division I.

While that figure marked a drop from 301 the previous season, there’s been a steady climb overall since 2000, when the NCAA reported 110 such players.

In the ACC alone, there are at least 40 players this season who were foreign-born and/or foreign-raised based on a review of rosters.

McGraw acknowledged that the figure is higher than she might’ve guessed.

It includes individuals from 19 countries. Australia has produced the most such players with six, followed by Canada at four.

Among the schools they’re choosing, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest follow Syracuse’s seven with five international players each.

Clemson is the only ACC program besides Notre Dame that does not have any.

No. 3-rated Louisville and North Carolina have one apiece, while the other eight schools in the league all have two to three each.

The Irish and Cardinals are not alone, though, among some of the nation’s premier programs in having either none or one.

Top-ranked Baylor and No. 2 UConn also have none, while No. 6 Mississippi State has one. No. 4 Oregon has four.

While McGraw may not find it necessary to invest resources toward recruiting international players at least for now, she also expresses an appreciation for what those players are bringing collectively.

“I think their game’s a little different,” McGraw said. “It’s very fluid, very smooth offensively. I think they’re very different than (U.S. players). They move without the ball really well. That’s kind of a generalization, but that’s the way their offense usually runs over there, so there are a lot of really talented foreign players in the ACC.”

Georgia Tech’s top two scorers and its top rebounder heading into Sunday’s game at Notre Dame are all foreign-born.

Freshman Elizabeth Balogun, averaging 16.3 points and a leading contender for ACC Rookie of the Year, is a native of Nigeria, though she has lived in the U.S. since eighth grade.

Junior Francesca Pan, averaging 11.8 points, and sophomore Lorela Cubaj, at 6.9 rebounds, both joined the Jackets out of Italy.

Bounce-back attack

Notre Dame’s 101-63 win Thursday at Clemson marked the 26th straight time the Irish followed up a loss with a victory over the last eight-plus years.

ND jumped on the Tigers 18-2 at the outset and stayed in control the rest of the way while handily knocking off a club that had recently won twice against ranked teams.

“It was great,” McGraw assessed Saturday of her team’s effort on the heels of a stunning 78-73 loss four days earlier at North Carolina.

“I thought we got out of the gate well, which is something we hadn’t done in a couple games, so that was good to see,” McGraw said. “We had 25 assists. That was good to see, and we shot the ball pretty well. I thought we handled the press pretty well. We got careless for a stretch and had 13 turnovers at halftime, which I wasn’t happy with, but we had only five in the second half.

“I think it was a really good game for us to get our confidence back.”

ND cracked the century mark in scoring for the sixth time this season to set a program record.

The 2013-14 Irish reached 100 points five times on their way to a 37-1 season, best in school history.

Last season’s ND national title team reached 100 twice, while the 2001 national champs never did.

Canadian Natalie Achonwa, right, remains Notre Dame women's basketball's only foreign-born player. Achonwa was born in Toronto, Ontario and graduated for ND in 2014. She currently plays in the WNBA with the Indiana Fever.


WHO: Georgia Tech (13-8, 3-5 ACC) vs. No. 5 Notre Dame (20-2, 7-1).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), Notre Dame.

WHEN: Sunday, noon.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $15.

RADIO: Pulse (103.1 / 96.9 / 92.1 FM).

TV/WEB: ACC Network Extra.

NOTING: The Irish and Yellow Jackets meet for the second time in four weeks. ND prevailed 76-55 at Tech on Jan. 6. This is the fifth straight year that the teams will battle twice in the regular season. Notre Dame leads the all-time series 11-0, with each of the last 10 matchups happening since February 2014. … The Jackets are led by 6-1 freshman guard Elizabeth Balogun, coming off a career-high 35 points in Thursday’s 91-90 loss at North Carolina. Balogun is averaging 16.3 points and is 51-of-128 on 3-pointers for 40 percent. Junior guard Francesca Pan is averaging 11.8 points and 2.0 steals, 6-5 freshman forward Elizabeth Dixon 9.7 points and 6.7 rebounds, sophomore guard Kierra Fletcher 9.3 points and 2.6 assists, and 6-4 sophomore forward Lorela Cubaj 7.2 points and 6.9 rebounds. … Irish leaders are Arike Ogunbowale (21.5 ppg, 4.0 apg, 1.8 spg), Jessica Shepard (15.1 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 61 percent on field goals), Jackie Young (14.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 4.8 apg), Marina Mabrey (14.4 points, 4.4 assists, 44-of-96 on 3s for 46 percent) and Brianna Turner (13.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.4 blocks, 60 percent on field goals). … Mabrey, coming off season highs of 22 points and six 3-pointers in Thursday’s 101-63 win at Clemson, is 21-of-39 outside the arc over her last six games. … ND will be celebrating Girls and Women in Sports Day. The Irish women’s soccer, women’s lacrosse and softball programs will be hosting sports-specific Fun Zone stations for all fans beginning at 11 a.m.

QUOTING: “They are a really physical team. That first game against them we really didn’t get to the foul line a lot (7-of-15), even though it was incredibly physical, so we’ve got to do a better job of handling that and being ready for that. I wasn’t happy with the way we rebounded in that game, so a lot of things we can do better.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, on Georgia Tech.