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ND Women’s Basketball: Achonwa helps squad weather Red Storm

Brian Hartnett | Monday, January 21, 2013

Despite holding a commanding edge in the series history, No. 2 Notre Dame has not typically delighted in meeting St. John’s, as the Red Storm have pulled off three upsets of ranked Irish squads since 2006. On Sunday, however, the Irish (16-1, 5-0 Big East) made sure history did not repeat itself, dominating the Red Storm (9-7, 3-1) en route to a 74-50 victory at Purcell Pavilion.

Notre Dame controlled the boards, outrebounding St. John’s 48-22. Bolstered by 19 offensive rebounds, the Irish scored 38 points in the paint and 17 second chance points.

Junior forward Natalie Achonwa facilitated much of Notre Dame’s efforts down low, as she scored 16 points and snared 12 rebounds.

“Ace [Achonwa] played only 23 minutes … and is really capable of doing that often,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “It’s so fun to watch her because she really dominates on the backboard. The guards help, but really Ace is the reason we are outrebounding people.”

Notre Dame also excelled on the defensive end, limiting St. John’s to 35 percent shooting from the field. The Irish held Red Storm senior guard Shenneika Smith, the team’s leading scorer, to only three points on one-of-15 shooting.

“I was really pleased with our defense,” McGraw said. “[Freshman guard] Jewell Loyd did a phenomenal job once again on their best player, holding Smith to her season low. [Junior guard] Kayla McBride also guarded her, and the two of them really did a great job.”

After St. John’s sophomore forward Amber Thompson scored the game’s first basket, Notre Dame went on a 17-2 run. Behind senior guard Skylar Diggins’ 12 first-half points and Achonwa’s 10 first-half points, the Irish went into halftime with a 39-25 lead.

Although Notre Dame didn’t score its first points until the 16:14 mark of the second half, the Irish soon heated up, as they went on a 19-6 run to put the game away. Sophomore guard Madison Cable came off the bench to help spark the Irish in the second half, as she scored 13 points and was three-for-three from beyond the arc.

“I got some pretty open looks,” Cable said. “[Sophomore guard] Whitney Holloway found me a couple times, [sophomore forward] Markisha Wright got double-teamed and kicked it out, so they did the hard part. I was just open and shot it.”

Overall, the Irish were seven-for-11 from the three-point range, a mark well above their season average.

“Seven-for-11 is just phenomenal,” McGraw said. “I think the guards got us great looks; the drive and kick was there. That makes us really hard to guard. If you think about trying to double team inside on [Achonwa}, you have to worry about the shooters on the perimeter.”

Notre Dame received strong guard play from Diggins, who finished with 18 points and six assists, and Loyd, who contributed seven points and six rebounds.

Achonwa said she attributes the strong guard play to improved communication among team members.

“We’re gelling, and I think we just know where each other are on the court,” she said. “Skylar sees everyone on the court and even if you’re behind her, she still knows you’re behind her.”

On the other end, St. John’s received a team-high 15 points and seven assists from junior guard Keylantra Langley. St. John’s coach Joe Tartamella said the Irish took advantage of the Red Storm’s mistakes on both ends.

“Notre Dame does a lot of things well and has a lot of depth,” he said. “I thought there were times where we had some good runs and some other times when we failed to execute, and they made us pay.”

Notre Dame senior guard Kaila Turner went down with a knee injury after hitting a three-pointer with 5:38 remaining in the second half. Turner is expected to have an MRI on Monday morning.

The victory marks Notre Dame’s eleventh consecutive win and boosts the Irish to 5-0 in Big East play. The Irish will return to action Wednesday when they travel to Pittsburgh to battle the Panthers.

Contact Brian Hartnett at bhartnet@nd.edu