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ND Women’s Basketball: Irish begin regular season

By Brian Hartnett | Friday, November 8, 2013

No. 6 Notre Dame will look to embark on its path to a fourth consecutive Final Four when the Irish tip off their regular season against UNC-Wilmington on Saturday at Purcell Pavilion.

The game will mark Notre Dame’s second appearance in front of its home crowd this season. Last year, the Irish finished the season with only one loss at Purcell Pavilion. So far this fall, the Irish have played only one exhibition game, a 118-49 victory over Division II California (Pa.) on Oct. 30. 

Notre Dame’s three seniors, guard Kayla McBride and forwards Ariel Braker and Natalie Achonwa, all did not play against the Vulcans. Irish coach Muffet McGraw said McBride and Braker would both play Saturday. Achonwa will be out a few more weeks after she had surgery last month to repair a torn meniscus in her right knee. Last season, Achonwa set a school record with 19 double-doubles on the season, including eight against ranked opponents. Achonwa averaged 13.8 points per game and 9.4 rebounds per game.

Freshman forward Taya Reimer and freshman guard Lindsay Allen will both see plenty of playing time Saturday, as McGraw named them starters for the season opener. Reimer scored 27 points against California, while Allen had 13 points and nine assists against the Vulcans. As seniors in high school, both Reimer and Allen were 2013 USA Today All-USA First-Team selections and 2013 MaxPreps Second-Team All-America picks.

“They’ll both get a lot of time,” McGraw said of the freshmen. “Those two are really talented players, and we need them to play right away.”

The Irish will face a new-look team in the Seahawks, who finished 5-26 last season. UNC-Wilmington returns only three players from last year’s team and boasts six freshmen on its roster. 

At the end of last season, three of the UNC-Wilmington’s top players, redshirt junior guards Jessica Freeman and Brittany Gamby and sophomore center Jovana Mandic, were dismissed from the team. Last year, Freeman led the Seahawks with 36.8 minutes per game and was second on the team in scoring with 10.6 points per game. Freeman also ranks third on the program’s all-time steals list with 202, and is fifth in school history in 3-pointers made with 121. 

One of the few returning players is junior guard Kelva Atkins, who was named a First-Team Preseason All-Colonial Athletic Association selection last month. Atkins finished last season as the Seahawks third-highest scorer, averaging 10.4 points per game. She also finished second on the team in assists with an average of 2.6 per game.

“It’s very difficult to scout a team that has so many new players,” McGraw said. “They have a lot of new faces from last year; we weren’t able to get a lot of film on them, so we’re really going into this without knowing a lot about them. I think it will be good for us to have to adjust in the game situations and figure out our matchups as we go along.”

McGraw said that despite her team’s experience, she still expects some first-game jitters from the Irish.

“You never know,” she said. “We have veterans with Kayla McBride and [sophomore guard] Jewell Loyd, certainly we expect to have some poise, but you never know with freshmen.”

UNC-Wilmington will be Notre Dame’s only regular-season test before the Irish host No. 20 Michigan State on Monday. Last season, Michigan State finished with 29 wins and only five losses, though all five of their losses came on the road. 

“Michigan State is a great team; they’re so talented,” McGraw said. “We’ve just got to focus on us. At this point in the season, we don’t have a lot of stuff in. We’re going a little slower than we have in the past to accommodate the freshmen, so I think for us, it’s really about taking care of ourselves.”

The Irish will face the Seahawks on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion.

Contact Brian Hartnett at [email protected]