#11 Natalie Achonwa of Notre Dame, leads the Irish in rebounding with 9.2 per game and is second best in the Big East Conference. (Photo by Kelly Kline)
#11 Natalie Achonwa of Notre Dame, leads the Irish in rebounding with 9.2 per game and is second best in the Big East Conference. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

Olympic experience elevates Achonwa and the Irish

Ken Peterson
February 25, 2013 - 4:04pm

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - – Natalie Achonwa came from a soccer family and started playing the sport from the time she could walk. Then through a little encouragement from her sixth grade soccer coach, the Canadian native decided to give basketball a try.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Now more than a decade later, the 6-3 junior has become one of the most dynamic scorers for a Notre Dame team sitting 25-1 (13-0 in the Big East) and ranked No. 2 in the country heading into the homestretch of the regular season.

“Coming into the season losing Devereaux Peters we talked a lot about that she needed to make an impact,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “We needed her to rebound and defend and do all of the things that Devereaux did. And offensively, I think she has an opportunity to be better and contribute more. She can score and we like her to score and she’s comfortable with that role.”

Natalie has exceeded expectations by averaging better numbers than Peters (11.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg) did last year.  Achonwa is the Irish’s third leading scorer at 13.9 points per game while she is the top rebounder on the team, averaging a little more than nine boards per game. Her ability to score from anywhere on the floor has taken the pressure off guards Skylar Diggins and Kayla McBride.

“I try to relieve that from (Diggins) and she takes on a lot of responsibility of being the leader of our team and being the face of women’s college basketball,” Achonwa said.

So far this season, Achonwa has recorded 14 double-doubles and her 23 points in an early season win over Utah State was a season-high.

“Natalie can come away from the basket so she is harder to guard because you can’t double-team her,” McGraw said. “Because you don’t know where she is going to be. She is great coming off the ball screens and she is handling the ball now in transition. I think she has made a good jump that is made her a little hard to guard. Now you have to talk about stopping her from scoring around the basket.”

Achonwa’s success first took root in Guelph, Ontario a small Canadian town about 100 miles north of Buffalo, New York. As a sophomore, she was selected to participate in Canada’s National Elite Development Academy. She attended high school at the Academy during her sophomore and junior years and credited Coach Christine Stapleton for taking a chance on her.

“I was in the 10th grade when it is normally junior and seniors (that attended the Academy),” she said. “From there, that is where I started to develop some kind of talent. That is where I started developing some real skill and I attribute my success and why I am here to the Academy.

“I was always eager,” Achonwa said. “I always wanted to do everything and I attribute that to my dad. He called me Superwoman. I played on an AAU team, a Junior National team and on the Senior National team within four months. Then I came here. It is just you live once and you’ve might as well do it all. And the eagerness to learn and develop got me to where I am.”

Achonwa caught the eye of McGraw when McGraw was in Brazil recruiting Diggins during FIBA competition.

“Carol Owens was coaching the USA team and (current Notre Dame Assistant Coach) Niele Ivey went down and they both saw her and they were very impressed with her,” McGraw said. “Mark Walton is the coach (in Canada) and he did a tremendous job with their younger developmental team and got a relationship with him and coached Natalie at the younger levels. And he thought it was a good fit and it was a perfect fit for us.”

As it turned out, Achonwa turned out to be a perfect fit for the 2012 Canadian Olympic team. As one of the youngest members on the team, Achonwa had the opportunity to practice with some of the best players from Canada who’ve played at the professional level.

“I’ve played with retirees from the WNBA and Euro League All-Stars,” she said. “I have been so blessed to play against so many great players and they still come into practice and they still ask questions. The fact they come to practice and they don’t know everything and the fact they are willing to accept that and as well as the eagerness and willingness to learn. They taught me so much and they were willing to teach me so much is something that I was able to bring back to my team.”

The Canadian Olympic team finished 2-3 in its pool in the 2012 London Games with one of those victories a 79-73 win over Brazil that featured Atlanta Dream player Erika de Sousa and Minnesota Lynx draft choice Damiris Dantas do Amaral.

“I learned a lot about myself this summer in traveling with the team and playing with veterans,” Achonwa said. “I came back with confidence and the fact the coaching staff and returning players so believed in me made me believe in myself even more.”

When Achonwa returned to campus following the Olympics, McGraw and her staff noticed a change.

“Going into the summer and making the Olympic team and for Canada to make it that far gave her great confidence,” McGraw said. “And that was a fantastic experience for her to be a part of something like that. When she came back, she was on a different level. She was a little bit more aggressive offensively; she was looking to score and really trying to contribute. It took her place in the next step in her development.”

The Irish’s schedule has allowed Achonwa to compete against some of the best post players in the country, including Baylor’s Brittney Griner and Connecticut’s Stefanie Dolson.

“It’s amazing,” McGraw said. “I think she should be in the conversation for one of the best posts in the country. I don’t think there is any question she can play with anybody. She has had to play against the people that most would consider at the top level and she is right there with them.”

Achonwa plays with confidence when she’s on the floor and aggressively goes after any rebound or loose ball that comes her way. Against Louisville, she took a tumble late in the game and was wearing several ice packs after the game to heal the bumps and bruises of playing in the Big East.

“I like to take the bull by the horns,” Achonwa said. “I was always told that you can’t teach height. The fact (most post players) are taller and bigger than me, it is all a mental game and how do you exploit their weakness and cover up your own. Coach Owens has taught me to front people and take charges and different, creative ways to defend them. I learned a lot playing against the best in the world.”

Achonwa calls McGraw “arguably the best coach in the country” and has high praise for a coaching staff that includes Owens, a former head coach at Northern Illinois University, along with former Notre Dame standout and former Virginia Commonwealth Head Coach Beth Morgan Cunningham.

“I think we have a tremendous coaching staff to go along with her,” Achonwa said. “They work so well together and we click so well with our team and we have great relationship with them.  I love Coach’s honesty and her bluntness. Those are the two things that I have loved and it is one of the reasons that I have come here.”

With Notre Dame all but wrapping up a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, Achonwa is looking forward to the postseason and a possible opportunity to play in her third Final Four in New Orleans.

“That is always the thought in the back of our head,” she said. “Finishing the season out the way we want to. We don’t want to look too far ahead and we don’t want to be too near-sighted. We want to find a balance and tackling the games we need to win and really challenge and push ourselves in the games we are not supposed to win.”