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ND Women’s Basketball: Three touted freshmen bring high hopes for ND

Laura Myers | Friday, August 20, 2010

A freshman made a big impact on a veteran Irish team in 2009. This year, freshmen will take on a vital role following the departure of five seniors.

Notre Dame brought in a recruiting class ranked No. 8 by ESPN Hoopgurlz. Incoming freshmen Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa spent their respective summers with the American and Canadian under-18 national teams, while incoming forward Ariel Braker was able to take summer classes and bond with the team at Notre Dame.

McBride, a guard, helped her team to a gold medal in the America’s Championship in Colorado Springs, Colo., in June.

“She had a fantastic summer,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “Started and won the gold medal. The coaches just raved about what a very coachable, hardworking, competitive player she is and just couldn’t say enough good things about her, so we were really happy.”

The new players will help to fill the void left by the five graduated seniors, including all three captains.

“We’re going to be fairly inexperienced,” McGraw said. “I think that we lost some great leaders. They were just very mature and responsible people. They were great in the classroom, great off the court, great on the court.”

Sophomore guard Skylar Diggins and senior forward Becca Bruszewski are the only remaining starters from a Notre Dame team that made its eighth Sweet 16 appearance in 14 years and finished with a 29-6 record and a No. 7 AP ranking.

Diggins, who led the team in points (13.9), steals (2.6) and assists (3.2) per game and earned honorable mention All-America honors as a freshman in 2009-10, will have an even bigger role this year, McGraw said. Former captain Melissa Lechlitner directed last year’s team, and the point guard duties will now fall to Diggins.

“It’s a whole new role for her,” McGraw said. “Last year, [Lechlitner] really ran the team. Without her, we’ll look for Skylar to step in and be kind of the general on the floor.”

Six more monogram-winners return for the Irish, including senior guard Brittany Mallory and senior forward Devereax Peters. Both have two years of eligibility left, making Bruzsewski the only true senior, but all three will take on leadership roles this year.

“The three seniors will be the ones we’ll look to set the tone and attitude for how we’re going to play this year,” McGraw said.

The team will be challenged from the beginning of the season, with non-conference games scheduled at Kentucky, which finished 2009-10 ranked No. 19, and at Baylor, which finished at No. 14. Much of the non-conference schedule is yet to be announced.

“I think we’re going to learn what our strength and weaknesses are pretty early in the season,” McGraw said. “… We may find out more than we want to know.”

The tough non-conference schedule will help to prepare the team for the Big East season, McGraw said. The Big East had five teams finish in the AP top 25 last season, and accounted for all four of Notre Dame’s regular-season losses.

The Irish will face No. 1 Connecticut, the 2009-10 NCAA Champions, twice in the regular season. The two teams squared off three times in 2010, twice in the regular season and once in the semifinals of the Big East championship. Connecticut, which has won a record 78 consecutive games, took all three contests.

“We like the challenge of playing the best teams,” McGraw said.

Although the season is still months away, the Irish have already picked up accolades.

On July 10, it was announced that McGraw was selected to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and will be inducted at a ceremony in Knoxville, Tenn., in June 2011.

Diggins was named to the watch list for the Wade Trophy, which is given to the Div. I player of the year, on Aug. 4.