- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Without Natalie Achonwa on the floor Sunday, Notre Dame not only managed to survive, it thrived. The Fighting Irish got increased production off their bench, solid minutes from their next-generation post, and their role players stepped up on the way to an 87-61 win over Maryland.
But if there's ever going to be a time that you are going to miss your senior leader, your tone-setter on the floor, the post presence who was leading your team in rebounding and giving you nearly 20 points a game in the NCAA tournament, it's a night like Tuesday when you are playing the defending national champion on a stage of historic proportions.
In simple terms, not having Achonwa -- who was lost to a torn ACL in the Elite Eight win over Baylor -- is likely going to hurt more against Connecticut than it did against Maryland.
"Yeah, I think so," coach Muffet McGraw acknowledged. "We are not using it as an excuse, though. I mean, we are going to play with the players we have and hope they give us the great effort they gave us last night."
The big question is whether it will be the difference in the game, the difference between winning and losing for the 37-0 Fighting Irish. It certainly has the potential to be.
With Achonwa on the bench and in her ear during timeouts and breaks, freshman forward Taya Reimer took her spot in the starting lineup and came up with the kind of contributions she needed for the Irish to handle Maryland and move to the national championship game.
But even more will be demanded of Reimer and all of the Irish posts against a Connecticut team that showed clearly Sunday in its win over Stanford that bigger is better. The Huskies turned the game in their favor late in the first half by employing a lineup that included starters Stefanie Dolson and Breanna Stewart, and Kiah Stokes off the bench. They are big, long and capable of matchup problems on both ends of the floor.
"It's definitely a challenge," said Reimer, who made her fifth start of the season Sunday against the Terps. "[Achonwa] has been our leader all year and obviously, she's one of our best players in general and a great presence for us inside. But we are going to work as hard as we can, be physical with [Connecticut] down low. And we did a pretty good job against Maryland and we're going to try to keep that up tomorrow."
Reimer finished with 9 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in the semifinal win. Markisha Wright ended up with 12 points and nine rebounds in 23 minutes. The Irish outrebounded Maryland 50-21 -- the largest single-game rebounding margin in the history of the national semifinals -- and outscored the Terps in the paint 42-28. It seems almost greedy to ask for more.
"I just think everybody has to do one more thing [than they did on Sunday]," senior Ariel Braker said.
Irish guard Jewell Loyd doesn't necessarily buy into the "do more" theory.
"I don't think people need to feel like they have to do more. We don't want any added pressure on ourselves," Loyd said. "I don't want to get caught up in 'do this or do that.'"
Connecticut, for its part, perceives a vulnerability that could work to its advantage.
"The coaches do the scouting report. They figure out the best points to exploit for the other team," Stewart said. "We think we have a really strong post presence. We are going to be aggressive in the post and off the dribble. That will help our rhythm."
Huskies center Dolson, who has had many interior battles with Achonwa through the years, said Connecticut doesn't take any pleasure in Achonwa's injury.
"Other girls are going to step up and I think she still brings energy from the bench," Dolson said. "But I think we will use our size to our advantage and also need to rebound and contain their guards."
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma cautioned against the belief that Notre Dame will be weaker without Achonwa on Tuesday.
"When players get hurt, sometimes, that just opens up opportunities for other players," Auriemma said. "They are more than one player. They're more than any one individual. If they can continue to get contributions from their other three post players like they got [Sunday], they won't miss Natalie at all."
Achonwa, meanwhile, is making her presence felt on the bench. The senior was coaching Reimer the whole way through the Maryland game, advising the young player on the ways to exploit her advantage, calming her down.
"She is a going to make a great coach someday," Braker said. "She was talking to Taya and Taya needs that. She's a freshman and she's on a big stage right now."
And she will be on the biggest stage in the game Tuesday night, pitted against All-Americans.
"We've played a few teams with good size and Maryland was a good test for us," Reimer said. "We know what we have to do. All of us are going to have to do more. But I don't think there's any pressure on a specific person."
12dBonnie D. Ford