TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) – After three straight trips to the Final Four – two of which ended one win short of a national title – Notre Dame’s three senior starters are down to their last chance.
If there’s any extra pressure this time around, the Fighting Irish are embracing it.
”I think it makes it that much more fun to know that this is kind of our last shot,” forward Natalie Achonwa said. ”I wouldn’t say pressure, but I would say excitement – that we have the opportunity to do something special.”
Notre Dame has already accomplished something rare this season, bringing an undefeated record into the NCAA tournament. The top-seeded Irish will start what they hope will be a lengthy run Saturday against 16th-seeded Robert Morris.
Notre Dame has one national title, in 2001, and the Irish have come agonizingly close to adding another recently. They lost in the title game in 2011 and 2012, and last year they were knocked out in the semifinals by Connecticut.
The Irish (32-0) and UConn are both unbeaten this year, so both teams will have to avoid getting too immersed in talk of a potential matchup in the championship game.
”We stay focused by not answering questions about the noise and distractions surrounding this whole thing,” coach Muffet McGraw said. ”We did it all season long without looking ahead, and now it’s a six-game season and we have to do it again.”
As important as Achonwa and senior guard Kayla McBride have been, McGraw credits a bench that includes Michaela Mabrey and Taya Reimer for much of Notre Dame’s success.
”I think we have the best bench in the country. The depth is amazing,” she said.
Not many teams have two former McDonald’s All-American players coming off their bench as the Irish do in Mabrey and Reimer. Notre Dame’s reserves ranked 20th in the nation in scoring this season at 26.3 points a game. The reserves, who scored a season-high 55 points in a 95-53 win over Boston College in January, rank fifth in scoring among NCAA tournament teams.
McGraw says the reserves provide so much more than scoring, playing key roles in rebounding, defense and doing the little things.
”I think we could probably start seven people,” she said.
Mabrey averages nearly 21 minutes a game, while Reimer averages more than 19 minutes, which is more than the nearly 17 minutes a game starting forward Ariel Braker averages. McGraw said she didn’t want to tinker with the starting lineup once the season started.
Mabrey leads the Irish in 3-pointers with 65, hitting 41.7 percent of her attempts to finish fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Notre Dame as a team is the nation’s second-most efficient beyond the arc, hitting 40.6 percent of its attempts while shooting a Division I-best 51.1 percent overall.
That’s a far cry from the accuracy of Robert Morris (21-11), which is heading to its first NCAA tournament despite being 53rd in the field in field-goal percentage at 41.4.
The bulk of the Colonials’ scoring, though, comes from inside. Robert Morris is led by forward Artemis Spanou, who became the third player in Northeast Conference history to earn player of the year honors in back-to-back seasons. She’s also one of seven Division I players to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 300 assists and 100 blocks.
Spanou averaged 19.8 points and 14.8 rebounds, the latter figure the nation’s second-best. She hails from Rhodes, Greece, and she’s one of several international players for the Colonials.
Anna Niki Stamolamprou is also from Greece, and Ashley Ravelli is from Italy. Rebeca Navarro and Judith Sole are from Spain, Lou Mataly is from France and Jolie Olingende is from Congo.