UPDATED 3PM 4/1/14
We have some unfortunate news for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team. After an MRI, Natalie Achonwa did, in fact, tear her ACL in a non-contact injury suffered late in the Baylor game. Achonwa will undergo surgery, but the date has not been set yet. Either way, her career at Notre Dame ended prematurely and her presence on the court will be terribly missed.
In an absolutely amazing display of consistency and success, seniors on the Notre Dame women’s basketball squad will have gone to the Final Four every season during which they were enrolled at the university.
Losing the first two seasons in the championship game, and last season in the national semifinal, Notre Dame still hasn’t held up the big trophy since 2000. But after a gut-checking, gritty, physical, emotional, and potentially costly victory against Baylor in South Bend, the Fighting Irish continue their undefeated season and move on to their fourth-straight Final Four appearance and hope to make this year count the most. They join Tennessee, Connecticut, Stanford, LSU, and Louisiana Tech as the only teams to have achieved this feat. (It should be noted that Tennessee has done it three times, Connecticut has only missed 2005-07 since Y2K and both Stanford and LSU had five year streaks)
We don’t usually post a lot of non-football Notre Dame sports around here (I think I alone have quadrupled that category in just a month or so), but we couldn’t help but bring you a little reading material to help you board the bandwagon and have an excuse to wear more Irish gear next weekend than you normally do.
But if you’re going to jump onto the train to Nashville, you should probably know a little bit about the station of origin.
Topping the list is ACC Player of the Year and unanimous first team All-American, Kayla McBride. Stepping up from the side kick role last season, McBride has taken control of the team as its leader and there wasn’t a hint of production drop-off from the Skylar Diggins years. At 17 points per game and a 2-to-1 assist ratio, she placed herself into national player of the year conversations.
Not as hyped early, but quickly climbing the highlight reel ladder, is sophomore star guard Jewell Loyd. She leads the team with over 18 points per game and insane amounts of energy and talent. She quietly passed Diggins’ record for points scored in the first two seasons during the Baylor game, and since the start of the ACC tournament Loyd has been an incredible force all over the court. She has a pestering defensive presence and is just as likely to score from twenty feet out as she is on an offensive rebound (leading the team with 90). Also surprisingly, she is third on the team with blocks.
Leading that stat is senior Natalie Achonwa. Probably the most improved player in the starting lineup this season, Achonwa has gone from serviceable to elite in one season. Her points have gone up and defense has been far more reliable, especially on backside help situations. Sadly, as I’m sure many of you have likely heard, Achonwa suffered a non-contact knee injury late in the Baylor game and will be undergoing an MRI today. Although this type of injury doesn’t usually bode well, seeing her return to the sidelines without crutches and climb a ladder to help cut the nets gave Irish fans a slight glimmer of hope.
Notre Dame actually coasted through most of their games this season. They’ve scored in triple digits six times, including a 25 point victory over #14 ranked North Carolina. The second-most prolific offense in the nation wins games by an average of more than 25 points per game (also second-ranked), including a 19 point victory over Baylor, which comes in third in both stats. They also lead the nation in field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage.
With three games against Duke and the final one coming in the ACC championship, there is a budding rivalry after just the first season of new conference play but after learning from Connecticut for two decades, the Irish are already the cream of the ACC crop. There was almost a palpable jealousy on the court when Duke, the team that traditionally has owned the conference, just couldn’t stay within ten points of the Irish all season. And other than about ten minutes to start the second game, there wasn’t a moment in the season where it wasn’t obvious how much better Notre Dame is at all spots on the roster, down to the last player.
With all the beauty of a McBride pull up jumper or an Achonwa tap in, there’s one play that exemplifies the 2013-14 Fighting Irish team.
Following along, even if only quietly and slightly embarrassed for watching women’s sports, to the season this year, you may have heard the phrase “Jewelly-oop”. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like and no, the spunky little sophomore guard doesn’t dangle from the rim like Vince Carter. Loyd has a disturbingly good knack for finding creases that would make her a great slot receiver and is always looking for the ball. Her teammates oblige with sharp passes underneath the basket for backdoor layups. Now these aren’t just pick-and-rolls in half court sets. These are fast breaks and transition plays that electrify the crowd and anyone lucky enough to see the game on television.
The Irish were the first team to qualify for this year’s Final Four, and were quickly followed by Connecticut who is continuing their own unbeaten season in Nashville next week. Those teams were by far the top two all season from the very beginning. They’ve played and destroyed all the top opposition…except each other. ESPN and the NCAA are begging for the marquis matchup a week from today, and we’re just one more step away from it.
Before that, however, the Irish will have to face the winner of tonight’s game between No. 3 seed Louisville and No. 4 seed Maryland (7pm EST, ESPN) on Sunday night, and UConn will go against the winner of No. 2 seed Stanford or No. 4 seed North Carolina following immediately afterwards. Stanford is the only real threat out of those four teams to beat either Notre Dame or Connecticut, and even that is a pretty big “what if”.
Should all indications hold, we’re going to be set up to watch what might be looked back upon as one of the greatest (and most important) games in women’s college basketball history. It will likely be the most watched, most anticipated game…and with all the stars and history, I just don’t see how it could disappoint.
Coach Muffet McGraw would say that we can’t look past either Louisville or Maryland, and that’s fine for the locker room. But I’m not in the locker room. I fully expect to see Notre Dame play on Tuesday night against Connecticut. And I fully expect to be going completely nuts when it happens.