Oct. 1, 2013
NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- Although the calendar just flipped to October, you'll have to excuse Notre Dame women's basketball head coach Muffet McGraw if it felt like Christmas.
After an early 7 a.m. (ET) wake-up call, McGraw put the Fighting Irish through their paces as the team completed its first official practice as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Tuesday morning at Purcell Pavilion. The workout followed several weeks of individual instruction sessions with the Notre Dame players and coaches, coming on the heels of the team's 10-day European tour at the beginning of August (the Fighting Irish were allowed to use up to 10 full-team practices prior to the trip).
"I think everyone was a little extra excited to get the first practice started," McGraw said. "The adrenaline was probably flowing even a bit too much in the first hour, but as things moved along, we started to get into a better rhythm. Overall, it's the first day of practice so you expect that not everything is going to be sharp, and certainly there's work to do before our first game at the end of the month."
Notre Dame had its full 13-player roster take part in Tuesday's practice, led by its three senior leaders and returning starters in forwards Natalie Achonwa (Guelph, Ontario/St. Mary's Catholic) and Ariel Braker (Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich./Grosse Pointe North) and guard Kayla McBride (Erie, Pa./Villa Maria Academy), as well as the fourth starter in sophomore guard Jewell Loyd (Lincolnwood, Ill./Niles West).
Together with their veteran teammates, the nine returning monogram recipients accounted for nearly 75 percent of Notre Dame's scoring, close to 90 percent of its rebounding and 62 percent of both its assists and steals last season, when the Fighting Irish posted a 35-2 record, won both the BIG EAST Conference regular-season and tournament championships and advanced to the NCAA Women's Final Four for the third consecutive season.
McBride was an Associated Press third-team All-America and Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) All-America team choice last year after averaging career highs of 15.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. Achonwa was an AP and WBCA honorable mention All-America team selection a season ago, registering a school-record 19 double-doubles while averaging career bests of 13.8 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
Meanwhile, Loyd was tapped as the 2012-13 United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) National Freshman of the Year and the BIG EAST Conference Freshman of the Year after piling up 12.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game with a team-best .413 three-point percentage.
"We have a pretty good idea of what we're going to get with our veterans, and they did a nice job of taking the lead today and keeping us motivated and moving forward," McGraw said. "They all have a great deal of experience in high-profile situations and they're making sure that the entire team is living up to our program's expectations and competing at the highest level every day."
Tuesday also saw the official practice debut for the Fighting Irish freshman class, with the four-player group having been ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation by several national recruiting outlets. The quartet is led by a pair of McDonald's All-America selections in forward Taya Reimer (Fishers, Ind./Hamilton Southeastern) and guard Lindsay Allen (Mitchellville, Md./St. John's College), with Reimer having also been chosen as the 2013 Morgan Wootten National Player of the Year, as chosen by McDonald's.
"Even though the freshmen had a chance to be here over the summer and went with us on the trip to Europe, it doesn't duplicate the feeling of going through your first official practice as a college freshman," McGraw said. "I'm sure all four of them were nervous and excited and hopefully they were able to get some of those first-day jitters out of the way and start to pick up our system and some of the things we'll be asking of them during the season."
Notre Dame begins its regular practice schedule this week, with a pair of media events on the horizon. The Fighting Irish will hold their on-campus Media Day at 3:30 p.m. (ET) Oct. 8 at Purcell Pavilion, with McGraw and selected players also heading to Greensboro, N.C., on Oct. 23 to take part in Notre Dame's first ACC Women's Basketball Media Day.
The Fighting Irish will make their on-court debut at 7 p.m. (ET) Oct. 30 against NCAA Division II member California (Pa.) at Purcell Pavilion, followed by the regular season opener at 1 p.m. (ET) Nov. 9 against UNC Wilmington, also at Purcell Pavilion.
PLAYING FOR COUNTRY Achonwa and McBride helped set the pace on Tuesday morning at Notre Dame's initial practice of the 2013-14 season. To have returning All-Americans on the court at the same time was something McGraw and her staff wanted to take advantage of, since Achonwa just returned to campus following a successful 10-day run with the Canadian Senior Women's National Team at the FIBA Americas Championship in Xalapa, Mexico, while McBride is headed to Las Vegas on Thursday to prepare for this weekend's USA Basketball Senior Women's National Team mini-camp.
Achonwa helped lead Canada to a silver medal at last week's FIBA Americas Championship, along with a berth in the 2014 FIBA World Championships in Turkey. Achonwa appeared in all six games for Team Canada down in Mexico, averaging 7.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per contest with a .462 field goal percentage. Her best outing came in the semifinals against Puerto Rico, when she logged a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds) in sparking Canada to a 73-48 victory, thus clinching its spot in next year's World Championships.
"Playing for Canada means everything to me," Achonwa told basketball.ca. "It's a huge honor to be a part of the national team. Qualifying is what we came to do and it (felt) great playing with the sole objective of capturing the gold."
The runner-up finish was Canada's second-best placement ever in a FIBA-sanctioned event, trailing only that nation's gold medal at the 1995 FIBA Americas Championship (played in Hamilton, Ontario, not far from Achonwa's hometown). It's also the third time Achonwa has earned a medal while competing for her country in international competition, taking home a silver medal at the 2008 FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Argentina and collecting a bronze medal at the 2009 FIBA Americas Championship in Brazil.
Meanwhile, McBride is one of seven collegians among the 33 players invited to attend this weekend's USA Women's National Team mini-camp, although a handful of those players will not be competing as they still are with their respective WNBA teams as the league's championship series tips off on Sunday night.
McBride joins former Fighting Irish All-America guard and 2013 WNBA All-Rookie Team selection Skylar Diggins ('13) as participants at the USA Basketball event, marking the first time since 2004 that Notre Dame will have current or former players suiting up with the USA Senior Women's National Team.
"I'm excited and honored to be part of the USA Basketball Women's National Team camp," McBride said. "It's truly a blessing to be able to represent my family, friends, teammates and the whole University of Notre Dame community. I couldn't imagine receiving this invitation without their love and support and I'm really looking forward to getting down to Las Vegas, reuniting with Skylar and both of us competing with some of best players in the world for the chance to wear our country's colors."
Both McBride and Diggins have prior experience competing with USA Basketball. McBride won a gold medal with Team USA at the 2010 FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Colorado Springs, while Diggins has won five golds in USA Basketball events, serving as co-captain on American squads that captured the 2009 FIBA U19 World Championships (a team led by current Fighting Irish associate head coach Carol Owens), the 2011 World University Games, and the 2012 FIBA 3x3 World Championships.
The upcoming USA Basketball Senior Women's National Team mini-camp, which will help identify those players that will be part of the selection pool that ultimately will produce the American roster in the 2014 World Championships and 2016 Olympics, will take place Friday-Sunday (Oct. 4-6) at UNLV's Cox Pavilion. It's the same arena where Notre Dame won the World Vision Classic title last December, defeating Alabama A&M (100-39), Kansas State (87-57) and No. 22 Texas A&M (83-74) on successive days. Diggins was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player, while McBride averaged 15.7 points per game at the event.
TICKETS GOING FAST Excitement for Notre Dame women's basketball continues to be at record levels, as the Fighting Irish have exhausted their season ticket package allotment (approximately 7,500) for the fifth consecutive season, led by a 92-percent renewal rate among last year's season ticket holders.
Notre Dame has ranked among the top five in the nation in attendance the past four seasons, and among the top 20 annually since 2000-01, having attracted a school-record 8,979 fans per game last year (better than 98 percent of Purcell Pavilion's listed capacity of 9,149). What's more, the Fighting Irish have logged 36 sellouts in their history (30 in the past four years), and had a school-record 11 sellouts last season, including nine of their last 10 contests.
"Our fans are absolutely the best in the country and we wouldn't have been able to achieve the success we have on the court without their support in the stands," McGraw said. "They are our `sixth man' and we're going to need them in our corner once again this season as we begin a new era in our program's history playing in the ACC."
This year's season ticket packages will start arriving in mailboxes the week of Oct. 21, along with a voucher for a complementary official lime green Notre Dame women's basketball t-shirt. Details on this year's t-shirt pick-up procedures, along with other important season ticket holder information and details on special promotions, are included in the Notre Dame women's basketball "Fastbreaker" newsletter that also will be sent to season ticket holders in the coming weeks.
Although season tickets are sold out, single-game tickets for the complete Fighting Irish 16-game home schedule will go on sale next week, beginning with a presale for season ticket holders at 8:30 a.m. (ET) Oct. 8 and then opening to the general public at 8:30 a.m. (ET) Oct. 9. Tickets cost as little as $8 for adults and $5 for youths 21 and under/seniors 55 and older. In addition, a limited number of tickets for each home game may become available during the week prior to, or the day of, that contest due to visiting team returns and other considerations.
Tickets for the 2013-14 Notre Dame women's basketball season are available by contacting Notre Dame's Murnane Family Ticket Office at (574) 631-7356 or visiting the ticket windows inside Gate 9 (Rosenthal Atrium) at Purcell Pavilion. Tickets also can be ordered on-line 24 hours a day with a major credit card at UND.com/tickets.
With all Fighting Irish ticket purchases, standard processing fees and service charges may apply.
A CHAMPION WILL RISE
For the fifth time in Notre Dame women's basketball history, a Fighting Irish alum will raise the WNBA championship trophy when the WNBA Finals series concludes at the end of the month. Both Devereaux Peters ('11) and Ruth Riley ('01) helped their respective teams, the Minnesota Lynx and the Atlanta Dream, to win the Western and Eastern conference titles, leading to their head-to-head matchup in the league's championship series.
Game 1 of the best-of-five WNBA Finals is set for 8:30 p.m. (ET) Sunday live on ESPN from the Target Center in Minneapolis. Game 2 will be at 8 p.m. (ET) Oct. 8, also in the Twin Cities (live on ESPN2), before the scene shifts to Atlanta's Phillips Arena for Game 3 at 8:30 p.m. (ET) Oct. 10, also on ESPN2. If necessary, Game 4 will be in Atlanta at 8 p.m. (ET) Oct. 13 on ESPN2, and a deciding Game 5 would be back in Minneapolis at 8 p.m. (ET) Oct. 16 on ESPN.
Riley, who signed with Atlanta as a free agent in June and is averaging 1.1 points and 0.8 rebounds in 16 games, will be making her fourth appearance in the WNBA Finals with her third different team. She is a two-time WNBA champion, having won titles with the Detroit (now Tulsa) Shock in 2003 and 2006, and she was named the WNBA Finals MVP in 2003, becoming one of only two players in women's basketball history to earn Finals MVP honors at the NCAA and WNBA levels (she was the 2001 NCAA Women's Final Four MVP and consensus National Player of the Year after leading Notre Dame to its first national championship). Riley also helped the San Antonio Silver Stars reach the 2008 championship series.
Peters, who was a starter and honorable mention All-American on Notre Dame's national finalist teams in 2011 and 2012, returns to the WNBA Finals for the second time in as many pro seasons after she and the Lynx lost in four games to Indiana last year. This season, Peters is averaging 4.1 points and career highs of 4.6 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game as a key reserve for Minnesota.
Along with Riley, former Fighting Irish All-American Jacqueline Batteast ('05) was a part of Detroit's 2006 title-winning squad, while former Notre Dame point guard and assistant coach Coquese Washington ('92) earned a ring with the Houston Comets in 2000.
FOLLOW THE IRISH
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), like the program on Facebook (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.
-- Chris Masters, Associate Athletic Media Relations Director