Commentary

Losing Achonwa is big blow to Irish

Senior forward averaged 20.5 ppg and 9.8 rpg in four NCAA tourney wins

Originally Published: April 1, 2014
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

Just like movies and television are appropriated for "fan fiction" as people who love them make up their own narratives, so it is sometimes for sports fans.

We all do this, don't we? In our heads, we create stories as we wish they would be or would have been. We invent alternative endings we consider more satisfying. We know it's not real, like sports actually is. But we sometimes just can't help ourselves.

And so it is that we'd all like to re-write the end to Natalie Achonwa's Notre Dame career. Not necessarily in what the results would be if she played in the upcoming Women's Final Four. That, I have no desire to orchestrate in my imagination.

[+] EnlargeNatalie Achonwa
AP Photo/Joe RaymondAs anticipated, Notre Dame advanced to the Final Four with a perfect record. But the Irish won't have senior forward Natalie Achonwa on the court in Nashville.

Rather, just that she would be able to play. That the 6-foot-3 senior forward who has been so amazing a leader would have the chance to finish out her college playing days on the court, rather than on the sidelines. But a left knee injury she suffered during the Fighting Irish's Elite Eight victory over Baylor on Monday will prevent that from happening.

Damn ACLs.

I don't know how many times I've thought that in 30-plus years covering women's basketball. Knee injuries where there is a tear to the anterior cruciate ligament have broken more hearts in this sport than buzzer-beaters have. They've caused more grief and frustration than any game result. They've prematurely ended seasons and careers, and derailed dreams and hoped-for scenarios.

But like all injuries, they are, ultimately, a fact of life in all sports. No matter the sport, you can go back in history and point to how a certain injury changed things dramatically. ACL tears have been a particular bane in women's hoops, as they have altered the paths many players and teams have taken.

And in the case of Achonwa's injury, it has significantly changed the upcoming Women's Final Four in Nashville. For the first time, there are two undefeated teams in the Final Four: UConn and Notre Dame. And while the teams themselves have been very careful and diligent about not thinking ahead to a potential NCAA title game matching perfection versus perfection, the rest of us have been talking about it for months. Relishing the possibility, to be frank.

Could it still happen? Yes. Is it as likely without Achonwa? No. But if it does -- if the Irish get past the winner of Tuesday's Louisville-Maryland regional final -- can Notre Dame still match up with defending national champion UConn the way most of us thought the Irish could with her?

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw and her players will try to say they can. They have to think that way. It's the harsh reality of team sports: When one player is lost, the others must tell themselves they can do it without her. And that they will do it for her.

To call [Achonwa] the heart and soul of the Irish is not hyperbole. … She is not someone who can be replaced.

But this isn't just another cog for a team to replace. Achonwa -- whose nickname is Ace -- isn't just a talented player, she's a born leader. Even though she's a post player, she's a traffic cop on the court for the Irish in a way guards generally are. Her teammates respect her. They listen to her. They respond to her. To call her the heart and soul of the Irish is not hyperbole, especially after the graduation of point guard Skylar Diggins.

"She's always been a vocal leader for us. Last year for the posts, but this year, that's her role [with everyone]," Notre Dame assistant coach Niele Ivey told espnW.com's Graham Hays on Monday. "With Sky being gone, we knew a lot of people had to do a lot of different things to be vocal because Sky's presence was so big.

"Coach McGraw told Ace, 'You're the leader. You're the one that's going to help everybody know where they're supposed to be.' Usually that's the point guard, but you have a freshman [Lindsay Allen], so she needed time to learn it. ... Ace is the one who has the voice."

Further, Achonwa has been playing absolutely great during this NCAA tournament, averaging 20.5 points and 9.8 rebounds while shooting 71 percent from the field in the four victories. She is not someone who can be replaced, one for one. Notre Dame doesn't have another "Ace" on the roster. Few teams do.

"I've heard Coach McGraw talk about how [Achonwa] is the energy for their team," UConn senior center Stefanie Dolson said after the Huskies' Elite Eight victory Monday over Texas A&M. "Whenever I've played her, she's just relentless on the boards. She's extremely tough; she doesn't give up."

[+] EnlargeNatalie Achonwa
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe way Natalie Achonwa carried herself Monday after she was hurt was awe-inspiring.

Now, the Irish will need to rely inside on fellow senior starter Ariel Braker (4.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG), freshman Taya Reimer (7.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG) and junior Markisha Wright (2.1 PPG, 1.5 RPG).

And the guard play, led by first-team All-American Kayla McBride (17.2 PPG) and second-team all-American Jewell Loyd (18.8 PPG), will have to carry an even bigger load than it already does.

It's not just an X's and O's thing, of course. It's also an emotional burden the Irish now have to deal with. In that, though, they will still have Achonwa's help. The way she carried herself Monday after she was hurt was awe-inspiring.

Achonwa had to suspect how serious her injury was and how devastating it would be for her personally. No chance to play in her fourth Final Four and try to win her first NCAA title. Nor will she be able to play this WNBA season as she transitions to the professional ranks. And there's the world championship in late September-early October, where she was expected to play for her native Canada. A lot was taken away in one cruel moment.

Yet there she was Monday, still focused on empowering her teammates and encouraging them. She was still leading them. She still helped them celebrate.

Achonwa is as business-like a college player as you'll ever encounter. She has been like that since she was a freshman. You can bet that, as disappointed as she might feel inside, she'll be telling her teammates, "Get out there and get it done! If you feel sorry for me, I'll kick your butt!"

For all of us who watch women's basketball -- either year-round or just during the biggest moments like the NCAA tournament -- we'll have to get over our own disappointment. With a team as terrific as Notre Dame has been this season, we wanted to see it at its best when the spotlight was the brightest. We wanted to watch a player like Achonwa get one more turn on the biggest stage in women's college basketball.

It's not going to happen. Instead, Notre Dame will strive to be the best it can be without her. Yes, this stuff happens in sports. But it really, really stinks.

We'd all like to re-write this lousy script.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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