- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Natalie Achonwa put in a lot of miles since the end of last season in order to put herself in position to take the next step.
As a new season begins, Notre Dame still has Skylar Diggins, a fact sure to keep fans flocking to the Joyce Center this winter to support the All-America hometown star. But after saying farewell to three players who started almost every game on the way to back-to-back appearances in the national championship game, the Fighting Irish also find themselves with more question marks than exclamation points for the first time in several years. So it's something of a coup that one answer might come from finding a bona fide Olympian in their midst.
The bonus is she doesn't even need a map to find her way around campus.
Achonwa is hardly a new face in South Bend. No player contributed more minutes off the bench for Notre Dame in each of her first two seasons. Devereaux Peters -- who with Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory combined to average 32.8 points and 16.1 rebounds --
did her damage in just 24 minutes per game the past two seasons. That's in part because of a propensity for fouls, but also because Achonwa provided the Fighting Irish with the luxury of limiting wear and tear on the elder dynamic post player, who wasted no time making an impact in the WNBA this past summer.
And on more than a few occasions, most notably and most recently in her lone start last season against Maryland's imposing front line in a regional final, the 6-foot-3 Achonwa showed flashes of dominance, suggesting she was only a temporary understudy. Still, it's a sizable step from occasional flashes to reliable illumination, one that is difficult for any player to take solely by playing summer pickup games and offering preseason platitudes about improvement.
It's a little easier to envision when the player in question already proved herself in an environment more challenging than any February swing through Seton Hall and Villanova will ever be.
After a summer spent playing for Team Canada, from a qualifying tournament in Turkey to the biggest stage in sports at the London Olympics, Achonwa returned to South Bend ready for a new role.
"She's like a different person," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "She's stepped up to a completely new level. She's confident, she's looking to score and wants the ball. She wants to score more and certainly can -- face up, willing to go down on the block. I've seen so many leadership qualities in her. She wasn't really a leader on that [Canadian] team because she was the youngest kid out there, but just that experience, I think, really gave her that shot of confidence."
That stint with the Canadian Olympic team might shape the player she becomes this season, but her home and native land, to borrow a phrase from the anthem, has long been at the root of her entire basketball identity.
By the time she was a high school freshman, Achonwa had to make a decision, one with ramifications beyond those that typically confront kids entering their teens. On one hand, she could stay home in Guelph, Ontario, a small city a little more than an hour west of Toronto, and have a normal high school existence. On the other hand, she could leave home and join the National Elite Development Academy, a now-defunct program in which select players were able to train on a year-round basis with the national program and live with host families, an athletic structure not unfamiliar in much of the world but still rare in team sports in the United States.
At that early age, she decided she wanted to try the latter, follow the path it put her on toward college basketball in the United States and make basketball a career.
That she now laughs about some of the bumps that followed, can smile as she recalls youthful tears, she counts as evidence she made the right decision. So, too, might the more joyful tears of those around her earlier this summer. After they surprised many by qualifying for the Olympics, clinching their berth with a win in Turkey on Canada Day, Canadian players waited their turn to enter the stadium in London and march with the flag during opening ceremonies. The one thing they all agreed on was that nobody could cry, not with the world watching. It was not their most successful defensive effort.
"Once [one teammate] started crying, everyone started tearing up," Achonwa recalled. "And I'm like 'Oh my gosh, here we are walking right into the stadium, so many people watching on TV, and half my team is crying.' It was definitely great to experience it with those players."
Appearing in the Olympics for the first time in 12 years, Canada advanced to the medal round, one of its best performances a 64-60 pool-play loss against silver medalist France in which Achonwa had 14 points and eight rebounds. The run ended in predictably lopsided fashion against the United States in the first game of the knockout phase, but the action on the court was only part of the experience. The Canadians moved into the Olympic village a week early and had time to soak up the atmosphere. It was in those encounters and observations amid thousands of the world's best athletes when Achonwa saw firsthand how small a margin separates great from good.
"I've had great coaches, and a lot of people kind of tell you that and try to teach you that information," Achonwa said. "But [it's different] to see it firsthand, how precise they do everything, how routine everything is -- down to what you're eating."
It provided a philosophical template, a way for her to look at her craft in general terms, but it also spurred more granular adjustments. Back in South Bend, she makes full use of the perks of a major athletic program that are easy to take for granted: the nutritionist, the trainers and others. She sought their help to design a more efficient training regimen she could pursue on her own, one that fits her college surroundings now but which she can expand upon once she moves to the professional game. She wasn't a slacker beforehand, but that's the point. The smallest details matter.
"It's a process," Achonwa said. "It's definitely not one of those things you flip over and change, and all of a sudden you're a world-class athlete. But I think it's something I'm going to continue to build upon and take away with me from this experience."
That is what McGraw saw in the junior when she returned, and it's what her team needs. Without Peters, it's a small team, only three players on the roster standing even 6 feet. They weren't big a season ago, but Notre Dame beat its opponents on the boards by an average of more than eight rebounds per game and finished with 125 more offensive rebounds than their opponents. Maintaining some of that can't be just Achonwa, but it starts with her.
"In general, what I was recruited for and what Coach McGraw wanted me here for remains the same, just amped up a little bit," Achonwa said. "I'm still expected to rebound, I'm still expected to score; it's just on another level, a higher level. The same goes for some of my other teammates. We just have to up what is expected of us and what we have to do. We lost a great rebounder in Devereaux Peters, and we lost a great scorer in Natalie Novosel."
Achonwa doesn't need to be an All-American for Notre Dame to remain among the elite. Diggins is the kind of All-American, and it's not a universal trait among such players, who makes everyone around her better. Junior Kayla McBride is poised for a potential breakthrough season of her own -- that is, if anyone still doubts her ability to be a go-to scorer on a contender after she averaged 11.6 points on 49.6 percent shooting last season.
But if the first international player in the history of Notre Dame women's basketball makes good on what she picked up from her summer travels around the globe, Notre Dame will not take a step back.
"I think playing in the Olympics was great for her," Diggins said. "I think it gave her a lot of confidence coming back to college basketball and [in] her ability to dominate. And I think that when she decides, she can be a really great player. I think the light is clicking for her. She understands she's going to have to step into a bigger role as a starter this year, and I think she is going to be able to rise to those challenges and meet those challenges that Coach and the team have for her."
After a summer spent playing for Team Canada, Natalie Achonwa returned to South Bend ready for a new role -- which is exactly what Notre Dame needs from the 6-foot-3 junior forward.