March 7, 2013
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - After earning its second consecutive outright BIG EAST Conference regular season title (and third championship in 18 seasons as a conference member), the No. 2 Notre Dame women's basketball team was recognized for its efforts with numerous individual honors on Thursday, as the BIG EAST office announced this year's all-conference and all-freshman teams.
For the third consecutive season, the Fighting Irish had three players named to the All-BIG EAST First Team, with senior guard Skylar Diggins (South Bend, Ind./Washington) being chosen unanimously to the first team for the third consecutive season, and earning her fourth all-conference citation overall after copping second-team plaudits in 2009-10. She is the second Notre Dame player to garner three first-team all-BIG EAST honors, joining Ruth Riley (1999-2001) in that elite company, and she's just the second Fighting Irish player to be a four-time all-BIG EAST selection, following in the footsteps of fellow South Bend Washington High School graduate Jacqueline Batteast (second team in 2002 and 2003; first team in 2004 and 2005).
Diggins is joined on this year's All-BIG EAST First Team by a pair of Fighting Irish juniors who earned all-conference honors for the first time in their respective careers -- forward Natalie Achonwa (Guelph, Ontario/St. Mary's Catholic) and guard Kayla McBride (Erie, Pa./Villa Maria Academy).
In addition to Thursday's three first-team all-BIG EAST picks, Notre Dame had a double award recipient, as freshman guard Jewell Loyd (Lincolnwood, Ill./Niles West) was an honorable mention all-conference selection, along with being a unanimous choice for the BIG EAST All-Freshman Team. She is the 10th Fighting Irish rookie in the past six years (since 2007) to earn a place on the conference's top freshman squad.
This marks just the second time in program history that Notre Dame has fielded four all-conference selections in the same year. In 2001, Ruth Riley and current Fighting Irish assistant coach Niele Ivey were first-team selections, while Alicia Ratay copped third-team status and Kelley Siemon was an honorable mention pick.
Prior to 2010-11, the Notre Dame women's basketball program had never had three players garner first-team all-conference honors in the same season in any of their league memberships (BIG EAST since 1995-96, plus Midwestern Collegiate Conference/Horizon League from 1988-95 and North Star Conference from 1983-88). Notre Dame also is the first school in BIG EAST history to have three first-team all-conference selections in three consecutive seasons, and just the second program to have three seasons (at any time) with three first-team all-BIG EAST players --the latter feat is something only Connecticut (2001-02, 2007-08 and 2009-10) has managed to duplicate since the BIG EAST began women's basketball competition in 1982-83.
This year's trio of first-team selections represents the 10th consecutive year, and 16th time in Notre Dame's 18-year BIG EAST membership (1995-96 to present), that the Fighting Irish have had at least one player garner first-team all-conference status. In fact, in head coach Muffet McGraw's 26 seasons as head coach at Notre Dame, covering three conference affiliations (BIG EAST, Midwestern Collegiate/Horizon League, and North Star), the Fighting Irish have had at least one first-team all-conference selection an astounding 23 times (all but 1993, 1998 and 2003).
The 15 BIG EAST head coaches voted for this year's honors, but were not allowed to vote for their own players. The complete rundown of all-conference teams, as well as the choices for some of the BIG EAST's specialty awards (Most Improved Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man Award and Sportsmanship Award), can be found on the conference's official web site, bigeast.org. The official announcements of the Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year, Coach of the Year and Scholar-Athlete of the Year will be made at a press conference at 2 p.m. (ET) Friday from the XL Center in Hartford, Conn., the site of this year's BIG EAST Championship.
One of seven final nominees to repeat as the Nancy Lieberman Award recipient (honoring the nation's top point guard) and a finalist for the Senior CLASS Award, as well as a midseason candidate for the State Farm Wade Trophy, Naismith Trophy and Wooden Award (all going to the national player of the year), Diggins has started all 29 games this season and leads the BIG EAST in assists (5.9 apg.), while ranking third in scoring (17.3 ppg.), steals (3.0 spg.) and free throw percentage (.818). She also is among the conference's best in assist/turnover ratio (6th - 1.68) and three-point percentage (7th - .344), and she leads the team with 25 double-figure scoring games (giving her 113 for her career, two off the Notre Dame record set by current Fighting Irish associate coach Beth (Morgan) Cunningham from 1993-97).
Diggins was a three-time BIG EAST Player of the Week and a five-time BIG EAST Weekly Honor Roll selection this season, as well as taking home Most Valuable Player honors at the World Vision Classic in Las Vegas after leading Notre Dame to a three-game sweep and the tournament title.
Achonwa has started all 29 games this season and has been one of the BIG EAST's most improved players, moving seamlessly into Notre Dame's starting lineup after spending her first two years as an important reserve. The Guelph, Ontario, native was expected to take on a larger role this year with the graduation of two-time All-American (and 2012 WNBA first-round draft pick) Devereaux Peters, but Achonwa has taken that growth to a whole new level, nearly doubling her averages in scoring (7.6 to 13.9 ppg.) and rebounding (4.4 to 9.2 rpg.), while scoring in double figures 24 times and grabbing double-digit rebounds on 15 occasions (including a career-best 17 rebounds on Dec. 29 against No. 11 Purdue).
What's more, Achonwa came into this season with one career double-double and a career scoring high of 20 points. This year, she leads the BIG EAST in double-doubles (15, including seven against ranked teams and eight against conference foes) and has five 20-point games to her credit (career-high 23 vs. Utah State on Dec. 8). Her 15 double-doubles also are one shy of the school record set by Katryna Gaither in 1996-97 (in a 38-game season).
Achonwa ranks among the top 15 in the BIG EAST in scoring (14th - 13.9 ppg.), rebounding (2nd - 9.2 rpg.), field goal percentage (5th - .534; also 22nd nationally) and free throw percentage (7th - .806). She also was a two-time BIG EAST Weekly Honor Roll selection and was named to the World Vision Classic All-Tournament Team after scoring 22 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in the championship game win over No. 22 Texas A&M.
Like her classmate, McBride has shown significant development this season, taking over as the primary wing scoring option for Notre Dame following the graduation of another two-time All-American (and 2012 WNBA first-round draft pick) in Natalie Novosel. McBride has appeared in all 29 games (starting 28 times) while ranking eighth in the BIG EAST in scoring (15.3 ppg.) and leading the conference in free throw percentage (.909). In both areas, she is posting career-high marks, including an improvement of better than 30 percent in her scoring average from last year (11.6 ppg.).
McBride also is tied with Achonwa for second on the team with 24 double-figure scoring games this season, including at least 15 points in nine of Notre Dame's 10 games against ranked opponents this season (averaging 18.5 ppg. against the Top 25 to date). Among her highlights against Top 25 teams this year are a career-high 26 points against No. 3 Connecticut on Monday night, 25 points against No. 22/20 Syracuse on Feb. 26, and 21 points at No. 1 Connecticut on Jan. 5.
Following her 21-point effort at Connecticut in early January, McBride was not only named BIG EAST Player of the Week, but she was chosen as the National Player of the Week by espnW and the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA). What's more, she has been selected as a midseason candidate for the Wooden Award and Naismith Trophy.
Loyd has appeared in 28 games for the Fighting Irish this season (starting 27 times), scoring in double figures 17 times and collecting her first career double-double on Jan. 8 at South Florida (18 points/13 rebounds).
Loyd currently ranks among the BIG EAST leaders in scoring (26th - 11.7 ppg.) and free throw percentage (tied-5th - .810), and would be tied for third in the conference in three-point percentage (.393), but she is short of the minimum needed for qualification (1.0 3FGM/game).
She also led all conference rookies this season as a four-time BIG EAST Freshman of the Week selection, most recently copping the honor on Feb. 25 after scoring a game-high 19 points in an 84-56 victory at DePaul on Feb. 24.
Loyd first opened eyes on the national scene with a season- (and game-) high 24 points and team-best seven rebounds in a 73-61 loss to third-ranked Baylor on Dec. 5 at Purcell Pavilion. The 5-foot-10 guard connected on her first four three-point attempts of the evening (finishing 4-of-5 from beyond the arc) on the way to notching the most points by a Fighting Irish rookie against a ranked opponent since Jan. 26, 2002, when Jacqueline Batteast scored 26 points in Notre Dame's 64-57 win over No. 16/17 Virginia Tech at Purcell Pavilion.
What's more, Loyd also scored the most points by a Notre Dame freshman against an opponent ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll since Feb. 19, 2000, when Alicia Ratay netted 26 points (including a school-record 7-for-7 three-pointers) in a 78-74 overtime win at No. 8/11 Rutgers.
Riding a school record-tying 23-game winning streak, No. 2 Notre Dame (28-1, 16-0 BIG EAST) is the top seed for the 2013 BIG EAST Championship and has earned a double-bye into the quarterfinal round, where it will play its first game at 2 p.m. (ET) Sunday at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn., against the winner of the second-round game between eighth-seeded South Florida and No. 9 seed Rutgers. Notre Dame's quarterfinal contest will be televised live to a national cable audience by ESPNU, as well as worldwide on the WatchESPN platform. It also can be heard live in the South Bend area on Pulse FM (96.9/92.1) and free of charge worldwide at UND.com.
For more information on the Notre Dame women's basketball program, sign up to follow the Fighting Irish women's basketball Twitter pages (@ndwbbsid or @ndwbb), visit the program's official Facebook page (facebook.com/ndwbb) or register for the Irish ALERT text-messaging system through the "Fan Center" pulldown menu on the front page at UND.com.