March 5, 2015
Hearts sank at a packed Purcell Pavilion last March in the NCAA Championship women's basketball regional at the University of Notre Dame, where Fighting Irish star Natalie Achonwa was clipped from behind on a blast to the hoop as the Irish were trying to lock down a victory against Baylor.
Achonwa landed hard on her knee in a twisting fall. As the 6-foot-3 post writhed on the court in pain, a shocked silence cloaked what had been a roaring arena as the Irish closed in on the school's unprecedented fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Final Four.
Knowing immediately that the severity of the injury likely meant her Irish career had ended, Achonwa hobbled toward her teammates after being helped up and screamed at them to finish the job and get the Irish to the Final Four.
Hearts soared at Achonwa's exhortation to her teammates, and Purcell Pavilion roared once again. Notre Dame went on to beat Baylor 88-69 and clinch the Final Four berth.
Achonwa kept inspiring the Irish, who dispatched Maryland 87-61 in a national semifinal game in Nashville. Without Achonwa, though, the Irish fell short in the national championship game against Connecticut.
"That final play where she got hurt, her first thought was the team," Irish coach Muffet McGraw said looking back. "She gets up, she had torn her whole knee and she still wants to inspire the team to win. I thought that was an unbelievable display of leadership. It said so much about the character she has."
Achonwa said the moment was truly heartfelt.
"It was pure, it was raw, it was emotion, it was straight from the heart," Achonwa said. "I'm still proud of the team and the way they continued on and continued to fight. I just needed to get my last two cents in there."
Achonwa's leadership and character highlighted a remarkable career at Notre Dame. Named an All-American twice, Achonwa helped the Irish to a remarkable four-year run. The Irish were 138-15 (.902) and reached the NCAA Final Four each of Achonwa's four seasons. The Irish were perfect in the regular season in their first run in the Atlantic Coast Conference and also swept unblemished through the ACC Tournament. Achonwa earlier helped win two BIG EAST Conference championships.
A native of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, Achonwa finished her career with 1,546 points (13th in school history), 970 rebounds (fourth), a .562 field-goal percentage (sixth) and 28 double-doubles (fifth).
Achonwa is still with the Irish, serving as one of its operations specialists.
"Everyone keeps joking with me, about how young I am, and I'm part of the legend crew already," Achonwa said. "It's definitely an honor, for Notre Dame and the ACC to recognize me as an Atlantic Coast Conference legend. It's a great honor to be in Greensboro, representing Notre Dame as an ACC legend, and representing Notre Dame as a staff member.
"Notre Dame has done so much for me. I tore my ACL two games away from the end of the season," Achonwa said. "Did they have to continue with my surgery, continue with my rehab, continue with giving me a job? No. That speaks to the whole family mentality that everyone preaches, and you don't understand it unless you are part of it. You can see from the outside how genuine it is and how everybody has looked after me. It goes to show that Notre Dame goes way beyond basketball. I'm actually getting emotional talking about it. They've taken care of me more than words can explain. To be named a legend ... it's an honor to represent such a great institution."
McGraw said Achonwa carved out an exceptional legacy at Notre Dame.
Combining a great work ethic with a high basketball IQ, Achonwa thrived in the complex Princeton offense run by the Irish.
"I think the Princeton offense suited her well," McGraw said of Achonwa. "It was the perfect match for her versatility. I think her legacy is one of being a great passing post player who could see what was going to happen next. There are very few players who can understand what's going to happen after the next pass is made, both offensively and defensively. She had really good vision on the floor.
"It was fabulous the way she really used her leadership. I thought she was a really great leader for this team. She had them ready for each game. She was the one who really emphasized how important it was to stay focused and ready. She never let them relax."
Achonwa is now using her leadership skills as an operations specialist for Notre Dame women's basketball.
When the need arose for an additional member of the operations staff, Achonwa was ready to step in for the Irish. She has a myriad of duties in making sure the team gets to where it needs to be and everything is set up perfectly.
"It's definitely been enlightening to see the other side, as opposed to just being a player," Achonwa said. "I'm seeing how much work everyone on the staff puts in. It's definitely been an eye-opener.
"It's a little different, because according to the NCAA rules for the director of operations, I cannot directly coach. There are a lot of restrictions regarding involvement with the players. I can't practice with the players, but alumni can. Ruth (Riley) and Skylar (Diggins) and Devereaux (Peters) can come in and practice with the players. I can't."
As for her knee, Achonwa has been working hard to rehab in order to play for the WNBA's Indiana Fever and Team Canada this summer.
"Am I there right now? No," Achonwa said of her recovery. "Will I be there by the time the WNBA season starts? Yes. I have my ups and downs. I have my bad knee days, I have my good knee days."
Carol Owens, Achonwa's position coach at Notre Dame, said Achonwa will excel in the WNBA, the same way she excelled at Notre Dame as a player.
"Natalie understood the Princeton offense as well as Skylar (Diggins, former Irish All-American)," Owens said. "I called her our point-forward."
Drafted last spring by the Fever in the first round (ninth selection overall), Achonwa impressed Owens with her leadership.
"Natalie's been on her own since the age of 14 with the way Canada develops its basketball players, so she's a very independent person," Owens said. "Her leadership developed each year. She learned from the people who were ahead of her. She really wanted to be a person who made a major impact. Because of her high IQ she was able to lead in that way and help the underclassmen understand the offense, understand what we wanted to do on defense. She was also a very good communicator with Coach McGraw. When you have player who can say, `Coach, I see this in the game,' that's invaluable, and Natalie was excellent at that."
Achonwa's confidence and maturity allowed her to be a strong and needed voice for the Irish.
"The thing I'm most proud of is that I said the things that no one wanted to say," Achonwa said. "I wasn't going to sugar-coat it. I wasn't going to put it in a way that put fault on somebody. I was going to tell you how I saw it and how it was. I hope I made people better that way, and I hope I helped make my team better."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent