Print and Go Back Women's College Basketball [Print without images]

Thursday, February 27, 2014
More experienced Irish top Tar Heels

By Graham Hays

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Presumably no team claimed an edge in experience in the first basketball game ever played. From those peach baskets to the light shows and bass beats that usher players onto the court these days, that was also likely the last time such a perfect equilibrium existed.

North Carolina is going to be very good. Notre Dame has a lot experience being very good.

A 100-75 victory in the regular-season home finale that kept the second-ranked Fighting Irish unbeaten showed the difference between those two stages.

For the second game in a row, on the heels of Sunday's win against Duke, Notre Dame removed much of the tension before the game even reached the first timeout. Kayla McBride scored off the opening tip, the Tar Heels fumbled their first possession out of bounds and the Fighting Irish led 14-2 before the game was even three and a half minutes old.

Natalie Achonwa
Natalie Achonwa had 24 points on 7-for-12 shooting and added eight rebounds.

In all, the Fighting Irish led by double digits for more than 30 minutes against a team that hadn't lost by double digits since the day after Thanksgiving. They did it by exposing the youthful indiscretions of defense that led the ACC in field goal defense by such a margin that the gap between first and second was greater than second and seventh.

Notre Dame shot 61 percent in the first half and 52 percent for the game. Many, if not most, of its points came off backdoor cuts and high-post passes, coach Muffet McGraw's version of the Princeton offense picking apart the visitors.

"They're so good at cutting with speed, a lot like UConn -- a lot like UConn," North Carolina interim coach Andrew Calder said. "They'll cut with speed and just slip and go. They do a great job reading that; you saw the backdoors, you saw the slips on the screens. They just do an outstanding job of taking advantage of your mistakes defensively."

McBride added another command performance against a highly ranked opponent to a résumé full of them, leading all scorers with 28 points on 10-of-15 shooting, but much of the offense and much of North Carolina's misery ran through Natalie Achonwa. The senior post came within two points of her season high with 24 points, 16 of them before halftime, and added eight rebounds. Thursday marked just the seventh time this season she attempted as many as 12 shots, but it was clear early that she would be busy.

"With the defenses that they had, that they were switching a lot and there was a lot of aggressiveness in denying the ball," Achonwa said. "Our plan was to get into the high post and get some backdoor cuts and just throw it off the posts to make them think about their defense and how much pressure they were applying to us -- make them step back."

North Carolina had a plan, too, of course. It just didn't stick to it nearly as well. Time and again in the first half, Calder could be heard imploring defenders to switch on the screens that stretched the defense beyond a breaking point and opened up so many easy looks that you wondered if Notre Dame had a tougher time in its morning walk-through.

They're so good at cutting with speed, a lot like UConn. … They just do an outstanding job of taking advantage of your mistakes defensively.

-- UNC interim coach Andrew Calder on the Irish

One team looked like it was following a scouting report to the letter. The other looked like it overslept for class.

That shouldn't be a surprise. There were nine Final Four appearances represented in Notre Dame's starting lineup Thursday night. Three of North Carolina's starters are waiting to play their first postseason game of any kind. The Tar Heels are good, talented well beyond their years. But they can't be experienced beyond their years.

"As a freshman, you have your highs and your lows," Achonwa said of her own growth over four seasons. "It's literally a roller coaster, and you're just trying to find your place on the team. I think with the three seniors on our team and a good junior class, we've been through it. We've learned from our mistakes and we learned from our successes, as well. I think that's just made us more mature in approaching games. I think we go into every game with the same approach.

"It doesn't matter if their best player is a post player, best player is a guard, best player is a freshman, fifth-year-senior -- it doesn't matter. We go in with the same competitive attitude every game."

The points usually start with McBride and Jewell Loyd, but that attitude starts with Achonwa.

When Achonwa first played for the Canadian senior national team, North Carolina's Stephanie Mavunga was 14 years old. So when the senior drew an offensive foul on the freshman midway through the second half that drew a rueful look from Mavunga, maybe she did sell the call just a little bit. Maybe the years taught her what was coming.

That's why she is as valuable to the Fighting Irish as McBride and Loyd. She had a big game in the box score Thursday, but she has an important game almost every night.

"Natalie is our vocal leader," McBride said of the player known as "Ace" to her teammates. "I think that she knows where everybody is supposed to be before they even get there. ... I think that Ace has just done so much for us beyond just scoring, rebounding, assists -- I think she's one of the best passers for a post in the country. She does all the little things she needs to do. I think she's so competitive. She's grown so much, and I've loved to see her do that."

Notre Dame
The Irish (28-0) wrap up the season Sunday at NC State.

Achonwa is the one who calls the defenses when opponents take the ball out of bounds. She's the one whose positioning gives everyone else cues where to go against a press. She's the one who speaks first in those huddles that precede free throws, pointing out weaknesses in the defense and offering reminders on responsibilities.

"She's kind of the point guard on the floor," McGraw said.

After 1,000 games, a milestone she reached Thursday, McGraw doesn't say much without knowing exactly what weight the words carry. And to use that label after months of answering questions about life after Skylar Diggins could not be a coincidence. That's the value she places on the 6-foot-3 senior from Ontario.

Early in the second half, another North Carolina run was turned away. The Tar Heels cut the deficit to just 10 points with a little more than 14 minutes to play and were doing a better job of closing off Notre Dame cuts. Then McBride lost her defender with a crossover and hit a jumper at the top of the lane. She and Achonwa trapped Diamond DeShields near the top of the key on the other end and forced a turnover, and two quick offensive rebound putbacks, including one from Achonwa, pushed the lead back to 16 points.

There was always a response.

After a narrow win at Virginia a week earlier and a stunning loss at home against Virginia Tech on Sunday, the rout in South Bend raises questions about whether a team with so many young players is hitting a mental and physical wall, even if only temporarily until a second wind arrives.

"I hope not, with the ACC coming up," Calder said. "We have practiced them extremely hard, and they have responded and they have practiced very hard. Maybe they're a little bit tired, I'm not sure there. But we're going to continue to work and continue to work and try to get better each day. That's what we try to do."

That's the only way experience comes.