NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- No one is saying that filling in the hole left in Notre Dame’s lineup by the torn ACL of Natalie Achonwa will be easy. But for Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, there was one question it prompted that was easy – who will start in her place?
Freshman forward Taya Reimer, usually the first off the bench for the Fighting Irish, will step into the starting role on Sunday night when they take on Maryland in the first national semifinal.Achonwa, Notre Dame’s “Ace” – that’s what her teammates call her – is well known as the vocal leader for the Irish, who are faced with the task of making up for the 14.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and the on-the-court leadership that she provides.
While she won’t be doing it alone, Reimer is up for the challenge.
“Ace has been helping me get better all year,” Reimer said. “She’s been helping with me just with my game, so I think I feel ready to fill that position, and I learned a lot from her so I definitely feel comfortable being in that position.”
This is not Reimer’s first foray into the starting five. When Achonwa missed the first three games of the season with a knee injury, Reimer started in her place. Since then, Reimer, a 6-foot-3 McDonald’s All-American in high school out of Fishers, Ind., has averaged 18.7 minutes per game. She leads the team in blocks with 48 this season, and contributed 7.4 points per game, 4.6 rebounds and .3 assists.
“She played very well [when she started at the beginning of the season],” McGraw said. “She's similar to Ace in what she can do at both ends of the floor. She helps us in the press. She handles the ball. She's a good passer. She does so many things that we really need in our offense. She's very good in the Princeton offense. So, I think it was a pretty easy decision to go with Tay.”
While McGraw is confident in Reimer’s ability to step into the starting lineup, she said that increased production can’t come from just her.
The Irish bench is deep; Michaela Mabrey scores 8.8 points per game, Madison Cable chips in 5.6, and the rest of the bench combining for another 5.9. McGraw isn’t looking for too much from one player, she’s looking for increased production from everyone on the floor in order to fill in the gaps.
“We're really hoping that everybody does a little bit more,” McGraw said. “If everybody just gets one or two more rebounds, we're trying to make up for what Natalie would have given us.”
Rebounding is what McGraw said will be the key to the semifinal game, with Maryland getting 11 rebounds per game from Alyssa Thomas, and another 10 combined from Alicia DeVaughn and Brionna Jones. The Irish and Terrapins did play each other once this season, in January, and Notre Dame came away with an 87-83 win despite blowing a 22-point lead. In that game, Achonwa played just 21 minutes due to foul trouble. While Reimer struggled as well, shooting 1 of 4 from the field, it gave the Irish a glimpse of what their squad looks like without Achonwa against a Maryland team with good size.
To deal with that size, Reimer said it is aggressive play that will have to play a part.
“I think the biggest thing for me is my mindset,” Reimer said, “having confidence and being assertive on the court, then also her defensive presence and rebounding, so I’m really focusing on those two things as well.”
From playing behind Achonwa, Reimer said she thinks the nature of Ace’s game has rubbed off.
“Just watching her all year, and how hard she plays on every possession, that’s something that I’m definitely taking to heart and that I’m going to try to do,” Reimer said.
Notre Dame knows it can rely on its regular starters, especially Jewell Loyd and Kayla McBride. Loyd scored 31 points last time Notre Dame and Maryland met up, and she scored 30 against Baylor in the regional final. McBride, named to the AP All-America first team, is averaging 18.8 points per game against top-25 teams this season. Ariel Baker will also help on the rebounding end – she is averaging 6.9 per game in her past nine NCAA tournament games.
When it comes to her replacement, Achonwa had high praise and confidence.
“She always seems hungry,” Achonwa said. “She gets after it every day in practice. She dominates in practice. She has gotten after it all year. Now, she is getting that chance and opportunity. I think she is going to take full advantage of it.”
Overall, the Irish are downplaying any one person’s role in this Final Four. The shirts they were wearing before practice on Saturday read “The Irish Way,” which Reimer said had a meaning as basic as playing for each other, a sentiment that has become even stronger since Achonwa’s injury.
“It’s been really motivating for all of us,” Reimer said. “Now that we’re here, we want to make sure we get this done for her.”
With their main Ace off of the court, Reimer seems primed to step up – and possibly become Notre Dame’s ace in the hole.