Notre Dame junior forward Natalie Achonwa knew this season would be her chance to shine.
And, so far, Achonwa has been taking full advantage of the opportunity as she has blossomed into one of the leaders for a youthful Irish team.
With three starters graduating from the two-time NCAA-runner up squad, including the team’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer Devereaux Peters, Achonwa knew she would be looked upon to step up her game, especially in the rebounding category.
|THE ACHONWA FILE|
|• She is the middle of three children|
|• Her older brother, Adrian, formerly played basketball at the University of Guelph (Ontario).|
|•In 2009, she was selected as one of Guelph’s “Top 40 influential people under 40″ by the Guelph Mercury.|
It is a role Achonwa has embraced, and flourished in for the No. 2 Irish. Heading into the weekend, Achowna leads the Big East Conference with nine double-doubles, tops the Irish with 9.1 rebounds per game, and has contributed 14.1 points per game – the third-highest scoring average on the squad.
Achonwa is one of three new players in the Irish starting lineup, which has banded together with Diggins and junior guard Kayla McBride to lead UND to a 15-1 start to the season. The Irish’s only setback this season was to defending NCAA champion Baylor on Dec. 5.
“Everyone always looks at the fact that we’re young as a negative, but I think it is a good thing,” Achonwa said. “We’re energetic and like to have fun.”
Achonwa prepped for her expanded role by playing on the world’s stage at the 2012 London Olympics. At 19 years old, Achonwa , a native of Guelph, Ontario, was the second-youngest women’s basketball player competing last year’s Olympics after she helped guide Canada to the nation’s first Olympic appearance in 12 years.
“Competing with the [Canadian] National Team this summer prepared me even more this season,” Achonwa said. “In the Olympics, you play against the best in the world. You play against WNBA players and the top 12 players in each country.”
Team Canada earned a pair of wins in the group stage to reach the Olympic quarterfinals [medal round] for the first time since 1984. Achonwa averaged 7.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game, highlighted by a 14-point, eight-rebound effort against eventual Olympic silver medalist France during the preliminary round.
“We weren’t even supposed to make it there, and the fact that we made it and competed and weren’t just content and happy to be there and represented our country with such pride was special,” Achonwa said.
The experience Achonwa gained over the summer has undoubtedly translated into success with the Irish. She has scored in double-figures in all but two games this season, and posted double-digit rebounds in nine contests, including an 11-rebound performance in UND’s 73-73 win against then-No. 1 Connecticut on Jan. 5.
“I think it has helped me be aggressive and competitive so far this season,” Achonwa said.
“She definitely has a more aggressive approach to the offense -– to scoring, to rebounding, to being one of the top players,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “She has a feeling of, ‘I can do more.’ [The Olympics] gave her really great confidence and it has made her a much better player.”
Achowna said the time she spent as Peters’ understudy during the last two years has also been a key to her success this season. Peters is now playing for the Minnesota Lynx in the WNBA.
“[Peters] is a great rebounder and is very quick and light on her feet – she’s a defensive presence – and I had a great opportunity to learn from her,” Achonwa said. “This year, I needed to step up. It’s still a learning process and certainly not perfect. I’ve been trying to rebound more and work off of [All-American guard] Skylar [Diggins] and our guards, and trying to help wherever I can.”
The Irish rank ninth in the nation with an 11.1 rebound margin over their opponents, and Achonwa has led the charge on that front.
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“We’re working together and rebounding and attacking and being that inside presence that has been criticized over the last couple years,” Achonwa said. “People say -– oh they’re not big -– we’re trying to be crafty in the way we’re attacking the boards.”
McGraw also depends on Achonwa’s multi-faceted talents as Notre Dame runs the Princeton offense, a system that features constant motion and good passing.
“In that offense your center is almost like a point guard because the offense runs through her at the high post,” McGraw said. “She can pass and distribute, we get her to pick-and-roll a lot. She’s really smart and you have to be on your toes when she’s out there. She’s going to see how you’re defending and find a way to get around you.”
While Diggins and McBride may be Notre Dame’s headliners, Achowna’s role continues to increase for the Irish.
“Now, she’s handling the ball more -– when she rebounds, she’ll dribble it out,” McGraw said. “She led the break the other night in a game and it had the whole crowd on their feet. She’s really versatile and has a really nice jump shot. I don’t think you can say, ‘we’re going to try to stop her this way’, because she does so many different things.”
Notre Dame returns to the court on Sunday when the Irish host St. John’s at noon ET on ESPNU. The game will be a battle of two unbeatens in Big East play as UND owns a 4-0 record in league action and the Red Storm has won their first three contests of the conference schedule.