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ND Women’s Basketball

Irish roll to Nashville, now must replace Achonwa

| Thursday, April 3, 2014

Some might have hoped, but few predicted the 2013-2014 Irish would achieve so much.

If the loss of Skylar Diggins didn’t do the team in, then the move to the high-powered ACC would. But Notre Dame (36-0, 16-0 ACC) plowed through a perfect season and then charged through the NCAA tournament bracket all the way to the Final Four, beating Robert Morris, Arizona State and Oklahoma State by large margins.

Irish senior guard Kayla McBride cuts down the net in Purcell Pavilion after Notre Dame defeated Baylor, 88-69, in the Elite Eight on Monday to advance to the Final Four in  Nashville, Tenn. Notre Dame squares off with Maryland on Sunday night in one of the national semifinals.Michael Yu

Irish senior guard Kayla McBride cuts down the net in Purcell Pavilion after Notre Dame defeated Baylor, 88-69, in the Elite Eight on Monday to advance to the Final Four in
Nashville, Tenn. Notre Dame squares off with Maryland on Sunday night in one of the national semifinals.

One might think that such accomplishments would silence doubt, but now the Irish have to answer questions about whether they can win this deep in the tournament without senior forward Natalie Achonwa. While the commentators debate, however, Notre Dame will stay focused on the game at hand, Irish coach Muffet McGraw said.

“I think our players are very self-motivated,” she said. “Our seniors and our captains have done a great job in the locker room getting them ready for practice every day, getting them to look at the next game and never looking ahead. I think we’ve trained them in that way over the years. I think it’s been passed down from leader to leader, but we really don’t have to do anything to motivate this group.

“They’re competitive; they want to win, and they’ve been a very easy group to lead.”

The Irish took things one game at a time and won them all. Most of the focus after those victories centered on the so-called big three: sophomore guard Jewell Loyd, senior guard Kayla McBride and Achonwa, Notre Dame’s top scorers this season.

Their offense certainly spurred the perfect run for the Irish, but senior forward Ariel Braker’s cannot be left out, McGraw said.

“She’s got to be the unsung hero of our team, and what a great game she had against Baylor: 10 points, six rebounds, four steals, some big plays,” McGraw said. “She’s kind of a blue-collar worker. She makes her way around the basket, sets screens, does the dirty work, doesn’t really care if she gets any credit at all. … She doesn’t get a lot because nobody talks about her, but she’s still important to our team, just that experience of having her on the floor.”

Last year’s team had many contributors but arguably only one brightest star. This year, however, more supporting players and unsung heroes like Braker have led Notre Dame on the road to the Final Four.

And they will have to continue to do so, now that Achonwa is out for the rest of the tournament with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Freshman forward Taya Reimer in particular will have a big opportunity in the game against Maryland, McGraw said. The Irish welcomed a group of four freshmen to the roster this season, including Reimer starting point guard Lindsay Allen, and their development has been part of this year’s story.

“I think [Reimer is] so ready for this moment,” McGraw said. “I think she’s been waiting all season for us to have to count on her. I think when you’re a freshman you’re learning the ropes, you’re playing well in some games — it’s a little inconsistent with your playing time and how things are going, so I think for her she’s kind of looking forward to getting out on the court and showing us what she can do.”

Loyd’s rookie season last year showed how a freshman can step up.

“She had a great freshman year and then to come in this year and be so much better, she was so much more aggressive,” McGraw said. “I think her mindset has changed. She is no longer the freshman who is deferring to the upperclassmen or waiting to be given the green light. She has just taken charge and knows ‘This is my opportunity.’”

Each story of individual development makes up part of the narrative for this season’s team, a narrative that has — so far — led to an opportunity to play in the Final Four.

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