NASHVILLE – Maryland Coach Brenda Frese leaned over the podium and practically snorted in frustration at Notre Dame’s stealing of the underdog role. The Fighting Irish have an oddly dangerous status at the women’s Final Four: They are undefeated and a No. 1 seed, and yet no one can call them favorites after they lost senior leader Natalie Achonwa to a torn knee ligament on the way here. Cue the prayers and candlelit intercessions for these supposed long shots, with their potent emotional play.
Frese wasn’t having any of it. Not that she sounded unpitying exactly — ACL injuries are the scourge of the women’s game. But Maryland didn’t need a psychological disadvantage, because it already has to face a Fighting Irish team with all kinds of conspicuous advantages, from its experience in a fourth straight Final Four, to its sorceress all-American guards Jewell Loyd and Kayla McBride. Pity? Pity the team that has to cope with this Fighting Irish squad, which feels so cheated and craves justice for Achonwa.
“Yeah, yeah,” Frese said. “Notre Dame can’t play that card. They’ve been to four straight Final Fours. You’re not an underdog. . . . It’s unfortunate, we all go through injuries. It’s a terrible part of the game. But when you have the best 1-2 punch in the country, two of the best all-Americans that they have, and by far the most experience. . . . Everyone’s still picking them, so there’s no way they can be the underdog. They can try.”
The problem is that the Fighting Irish are so good at cultivating the emotional edge. Once they got over the shock factor of losing Achonwa, who landed hard on her left knee with just 4 minutes 50 seconds to play against Baylor in the Elite Eight last week, she became a powerful rallying point. They regrouped with frightening speed and intensity. You could see it the moment Achonwa rose from the floor and screamed at her teammates on the way to the locker room, “Win this [expletive]!”
And you could see it again in the T-shirt point guard Lindsey Allen wore in the locker room before practice on Saturday. “Wanna Fight?” it said.
ESPN’s Doris Burke reached McGraw not long after the MRI exam results on Achonwa’s knee came in, and asked for her immediate thoughts. McGraw’s first response was an understandable sense of unfairness. Her second one was a cool belligerence. “We’re not done yet,” she told Burke.
“I’m a huge believer that the kids adopt the presence and the countenance and demeanor that the head coach gives you,” Burke says.
McGraw’s perpetual demeanor is one of certainty. Words and orders stream from her clipped and efficient, and there is never any outward braying or stamping, just an undeniable sense of direction. The Irish would have just four practices to adjust to the loss of Achonwa before meeting Maryland in the national semifinals on Sunday. McGraw and her staff met with Achonwa to discuss what message to send the team, how to move them from self-pity to aggression.
In a team meeting, according Allen, McGraw spoke first, and simply.
“Obviously it’s devastating that Natalie is out and can’t play, but we got here for a reason,” she said. “We just have to finish it for her. Everybody has to do a little bit more.” Then she yielded the floor to Achonwa, the senior post player nicknamed “Ace” who has controlled the temperature of the team all season.
“We’re done, there’s no more whining about it,” Achonwa said matter-of-factly. “No more mourning.”
Achonwa was so determined to shift her teammates’ focus from her knee to their Final Four meeting with Maryland, in fact, that she refused to even schedule her surgery. “I haven’t even set a date,” she says. “I tore my ACL, and I can’t do anything about it. Control the controllables is what I always say. I’m not looking at that right now. I’m looking at Maryland and what we’re going to do.”
McGraw told the Irish their approach to replacing Achonwa’s production on the floor would be piecemeal. “If everybody just gets one more or two more rebounds, we can make up for what Natalie would have given us,” McGraw says. Achonwa was their leading rebounder with 7.7 a game and their third-leading scorer with an average of 14.9. Her replacement, Taya Reimer, can’t metabolize into that kind of player overnight. Yet Reimer is her own presence who averages 4.6 rebounds and 7.4 points, with 48 blocks, and she came off the bench to spell Achonwa for four games early in the season when Achonwa was briefly out with another injury. “Be Taya Reimer,” Achonwa says. “She doesn’t have to be anyone else. She doesn’t have to be me.”
McGraw’s emphasis on the collective rather than asking for one or two players to shoulder a larger load relaxed the Irish and convinced them that victory without Achonwa is doable. “She didn’t just pinpoint one person or one thing that was going to change it,” McBride says “And that kind of flipped it. Okay it’s going to be a team thing, now how can we bring the team together? I think our sense of urgency doubled.”
When they took the practice floor they had no more doubts — and they had a new cause. And it’s never easy to play a Fighting Irish team with a cause.
Fore more by Sally Jenkins, go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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