ND Women’s Basketball: Loyd, Braker playing key roles
Cory Bernard | Saturday, April 6, 2013
NEW ORLEANS – Entering this season, the Irish knew they had three experienced players ready to contribute big numbers. But the graduation of starting guards Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory and starting forward Devereaux Peters also left big holes to fill.
Enter Jewell Loyd and Ariel Braker.
The freshman guard Loyd and junior forward Braker have added to the core of senior guard Skylar Diggins, junior guard Kayla McBride and junior forward Natalie Achonwa and helped propel Notre Dame back to the Final Four.
“I think we’ve just been very fortunate that people like Ariel Braker and Jewell Loyd, not playing like a freshman, have contributed this year,” McBride said. “It’s just all-around aspects of the game and I’m really proud of the way they stepped up because I knew Ace (Achonwa) and Skylar were going to do their jobs after last year. We’ve been in this position before.”
Last season, Diggins and McBride both started and averaged double-digit points per game. Achonwa came off the bench but averaged 7.6 points and 4.4 rebounds in 17 minutes per contest. She also became a key player on Canada’s national team at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
But during the same season, Loyd was playing high school basketball and Braker was averaging just seven minutes per game as a reserve. According to Achonwa, the now first-year starters put in the practice time necessary to become steady players.
“I think the work that they put in during the offseason has really helped them,” she said. “Ariel has done great with the weight room and getting stronger with that ability to come in and contribute. Jewell Loyd, she’s a great scorer but I think she’s really worked on her defense and helping out on the defensive end as well.”
Irish coach Muffet McGraw said she first began to realize her team’s potential after Notre Dame responded to the loss to Baylor on Dec. 5 by rebounding to beat two quality opponents – Texas A&M and Connecticut – over the course of the next month. According to McGraw, Loyd’s play especially contributed to this newfound confidence.
“I think from that moment on, we felt totally different, like we got here a lot earlier than we thought we would,” McGraw said. “I think our expectations changed in that time.
“I think the mindset was there, the confidence. I think that’s what we saw that we went in, we executed what we needed to. We made shots when we needed to. And I think certainly Jewell Lloyd had a lot to do with that.”
Loyd, who was named the National Freshman of the Year by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association on Thursday, said the leadership of Diggins and the faith of the coaches have helped her embrace the starting role, where she is scoring 12.5 points per game.
“I think it’s been helping my teammates,” Loyd said of her scoring. “Obviously it’s great playing with Skylar who has helped me get to where I am at today and the coaching staff, just having them believe in me.”
With McBride and Diggins already proven commodities on the perimeter, Achonwa said Loyd has made the Notre Dame offense even more potent.
“I think the fact that we have so many people that can contribute makes us deadly,” Achonwa said. “We have so many threats in Jewell Loyd and K-Mac and Skylar and I think they can’t stop them all.”
Although the contributions of Loyd and Braker may have come sooner than expected in their first year in the starting lineup, McBride said the newcomers’ arrivals are no surprise because they possess a common trait.
“I don’t know if it’s been lucky. I think its confidence, a lot of it,” McBride said. “I think you look at Jewell, she doesn’t play like a freshman and Ariel, she has grasped the opportunity after we lost last year and I just think their great players and they’ve been able to do a lot of things to help us out on the court.”
Contact Cory Bernard at [email protected]