Filing the void left by Achonwa: Who's stepping up for the Irish?

Contributors
April 8, 2014 - 4:38pm
When Natalie Achonwa went out with a torn ACL in the Elite Eight, Notre Dame was put in the position of having to replace more than 14 points and close to eight rebounds per game. We look at who got the job done for the Irish in Sunday's national semifinal and how things are likely to play out in Tuesday night's national championship game. (Photo by Teri Priebe)

When Natalie Achonwa went out with a torn ACL in the Elite Eight, Notre Dame was put in the position of having to replace more than 14 points and close to eight rebounds per game. We look at who got the job done for the Irish in Sunday's national semifinal and how things are likely to play out in Tuesday night's national championship game. (Photo by Teri Priebe)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – As Notre Dame’s women’s basketball program headed into Sunday night's Final Four in Nashville against Maryland, the big question was how the Irish would overcome the loss of senior standout Natalie Achonwa, sidelined for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL suffered in last week's 88-69 Notre Dame Regional final win over Baylor. The same question looms even larger in tonight's National Championship tilt against undefeated first-seed Connecticut.

While many outside of the Notre Dame program believed Notre Dame's national title hopes were gone along with Achonwa, coach Muffet McGraw doesn’t think so.

McGraw met with the media and made it clear that it is “next player up” for the Fighting Irish. To emphasize the point, every member of the Irish squad is wearing Achonwa's nickname, "Ace," and jersey number 11, on her warmups.

With Achonwa, the team’s third double-digit scoring option at 14.9 points per game and its leading rebounder at 7.7 rebounds per game, out, the Irsh had to find a way to replace that output. McGraw mentioned several options she was looking at heading into Sunday's game.

One possibility was turning to freshman post Taya Reimer who stood in well for Achonwa during Notre Dame's regular-season ACC match-up with Maryland when the senior was experiencing foul trouble. In that game, McGraw contended, Notre Dame showed it could handle the Terrapins even without Achonwa. True, the Fighting Irish won by a relatively close margin of 87-83 in Landover, but Achonwa was a virtual non-factor in that game and at one point, Notre Dame held a 22-point lead.

The other, one that played to the Irsh strength, was going with a four-guard lineup in which Madison Cable and Michaela Mabrey would see significant playing time.

Throw in Kayla McBride, Jewell Loyd, Lindsay Allen each stepping up her production, and the Irish would have more than enough solid shooters to stave off concerns about a significant scoring drop.

One thing was clear beyond all doubt, however: If  Notre Dame is going to win the national championship without Natalie Achonwa, Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd would have to step up in a big way for the Fighting Irish.

The senior and sophomore, respectively have played key roles in Notre Dame’s 36-0 season.

As it turned out, McGraw tried a little bit of everything on Sunday against Maryland -- and the pundits were put to shame when it worked. The Irish didn't just eke out a narrow skin-of-the-teeth win; they subjected an out-classed Maryland squad to an 87-61 rout.

But who was it who in fact stepped up for the irish? Who will the Connecticut Huskies have to contain if they're to avoid the same fate as Maryland?

The chart below examines the scoring performance of each of the Irish players in Sunday's game, as compared to both her season average and her production in the regular-season game against Maryland. As can be seen, Kayla McBride, who certain deserves player of the game honors for her Final Four performance against Maryland, stepped up big time, registering 8.8 points more than her season average, and 10.8 points more than she posted in the regular-season meeting with the Terps. Another big producer? Junior forward Markisha Wright, who exceeded her season scoring average by nearly 10 points.

Reimer, Allen, Cable and sophomore guard Hannah Huffman also made contributions that were greater than their season averages.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Jewell Loyd under-produced in the scoring column. That's not to say that Loyd's performance was anything less than essential to the Notre Dame win. Loyd was the second leading scorer for the Irish in Sunday's game with 16 points, and her lockdown defense on Maryland star Alyssa Thomas was irreplacable. Still, the fact remains that Loyd not only did nothing to help replace Achonwa's lost scoring, but her teammates were also forced to fill the deficit in Loyd's own typical scoring.

The other no show for the Irish was Mabrey, who normally averages 8.8 points per game and posted 13 in the regular-season Maryland tilt, but came up empty-handed on Sunday.

 

PLAYER

SEASON AVG

@MARYLAND (1/27)

 

FINAL FOUR

DIFF.

ACHONWA

14.9

7

 

DNP

-14.9

McBride

17.2

20

 

28

+8.8

Loyd

18.8

31

 

16

-2.8

Wright

2.1

2

 

12

+9.9

Reimer

7.4

2

 

9

+1.6

Allen

6.2

6

 

9

+2.8

Cable

5.6

0

 

7

+1.4

Huffman

0.9

DNP

 

4

+3.1

Braker

4.2

6

 

2

-2.2

Mabrey

8.8

13

 

0

-8.8

Holloway

1.2

DNP

 

0

-1.2

Nelson

2.2

DNP

 

0

-2.2

NET

 

 

 

 

+10,4

 

Easily as important as replacing Achonwa's lost scoring -- and what may be an even bigger issue in tonight's title game against UConn -- was compensating for Achonwa's absence on the boards. As the second chart shows, Wright was the major contributor in this regard. However, Loyd, McBride, Reimer and Cable each boosted their rebounding by a little bit over their season averages, while Ariel Braker, Mabrey, Whitney Holloway and Huffman all came up a bit short.

 

PLAYER

SEASON AVG

@MARYLAND (1/27)

 

FINAL FOUR

DIFF.

ACHONWA

7.7

6.4

 

DNP

-7.7

Loyd

6.4

7

 

9

+2.6

Wright

1.5

3

 

9

+7.5

McBride

5.2

4

 

7

+1.8

Reimer

4.6

2

 

5

+0.4

Cable

3.4

0

 

5

+1.6

Allen

2.3

1

 

3

+0.7

Braker

4.8

2

 

2

-2.8

Mabrey

1.3

1

 

1

-0.3

Nelson

1.0

DNP

 

1

0

Holloway

0.4

DNP

 

0

-0.4

Huffman

1.4

DNP

 

0

-1.4

TEAM

3.5

8

 

8

+4.5

NET

 

 

 

 

 

+14.2

So, can the Irish do it again tonight against UConn? The numbers in these two charts suggest not.

Much of the scoring slack -- and a fair portion of the rebounding replacement -- was made up for by Notre Dame's guards, who on the whole were significantly better than the Maryland backcourt. Very little was accomplished by the Irish post relievers.

The problem is that UConn's guard play is outstanding, as is Notre Dame's. What will make the difference in this game is the Connecticut post, and at the moment, Notre Dame has nothing to compete with the likes of Breanna Stewart and Stefanie Dolson, much less the "big" lineup Geno Auriemma used to rout Stanford, adding Kiah Stokes to the equation and shifting Stewart to the three.

Connecticut will want to pound it into the paint, but Notre Dame will do its best to clog the paint daring UConn to shoot 3s, which they have been doing relatively poorly of late. If the Huskies can knock them down from beyond the arc in this game, however, they will win it for sure.

Will Husky point guard Moriah Jefferson, Connecticut's best backcourt defender, try to stop Loyd or McBride?  Most likely McBride -- for one thing, Loyd has been virtually unstoppable for most of the season and even on an off night can be counted on to register double digits. For another, it was McBride who did much of the damage on Sunday.

The rest of the Connecticut defenders should get out to the 3-point line and force both Notre Dame guard standouts to settle for midrange two-pointers. The UConn frontline can be counted on to keep them from making too many layups, so if Connecticut can control the perimeter, they will have reduced the Irish offense to one weapon instead of three. 

Will McGraw let Allen run the point on Tuesday? Auriemma might put Jefferson there to disrupt the inexperienced Irish freshman.

McGraw, on the the other hand, will almost certainly play off Jefferson, who has, like everyone else in UConn blue and white, been missing her 3s throughout the tournament, though coming into the tournament she had been shooting nearly 60 percent.

If UConn continues to struggle from beyond the arc, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis will be key, as will the Connecticut guards' ability to feed the post with Notre Dame packed in.

On the defensive side of the ball, Notre Dame will have to have another astonishing rebounding game to win. And that likely means that the Irish will have to get a lot more out of their back-up posts than they produced in Sunday's game.

Yesterday, after having had a day to reflect on the dramatic outcome of Sunday's Final Four victory, McGraw spoke eloquetly of her pride in her team's effort:

"I don't think I've ever been prouder of my team than I was in that game last night, to see everybody, every single person who went in the game step up to help us win, whether it showed up on the stat sheet or not.

This is a team that's completely united. We have now more of a cause. We're playing for Natalie. We want to win this for her. We want to win it for the seniors. This group has tremendous chemistry. And it's been a really great ride this year."

McGraw and the Irish Nation have every right to be proud of their team's performance Sunday, after pretty much everyone had pronounced them not just dead but buried. Still, UConn is a horse of a different color. Maryland is a poor defensive team (just watch the tape). Connecticut is the best defensive team in the nation by multiple measures.

Notre Dame has not seen defense like this all season. Connecticut hasn't seen shooting like that of the Irish guards all season. Whether or not the Irish can pull off what can only be called an upset, it should be one heck of a game.

 

Editor's Note:  Jim Clark also contributed to the reporting and analysis in this piece.


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