Irish resiliency again being tested
Question marks are nothing new for the Notre Dame women's basketball team.
The big one heading into this season was "How would the Irish compensate for the loss of popular All-American point guard Skylar Diggins?"
Diggins took her game and her hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers to the WNBA last season, where she started for the Tulsa Shock as a rookie.
For four years, the Irish had been extremely Diggins-centric. Everything ran through her.
But clearly, Notre Dame has managed just fine in Diggins' absence.
The top-seeded Irish are 36-0 heading into Sunday's NCAA national semifinal against No. 4 Maryland (28-6) at the Women's Final Four in Nashville (5:30 p.m., ESPN). They've also got their eye on a potential championship game matchup with another unbeaten and top seed, 38-0 Connecticut, which will face No. 2 Stanford (33-3) in the 7:30 p.m. national semifinal.
"At the beginning of the season, losing Skylar Diggins, I don't think anybody had us advancing this far," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said at the Final Four news conference Wednesday. "Certainly there were a lot of question marks for us."
Now there's another one. A big one.
The question is whether Notre Dame will be able to compensate again. The Irish are dealing with another loss. Bu this time it comes without much warning or time to prepare.
Talented senior forward Natalie Achonwa went down in the final minutes of Notre Dame's Elite Eight victory over Baylor with a torn ACL. The 6-foot-3 native Canadian is not only an emotional leader for the Irish, she also is a stats stuffer who put up some very important numbers.
Achonwa averaged 14.9 points per game, hit a team-leading 61 percent of her field goals and pulled down a team-best 7.7 rebounds per game -- which would have come in handy against a Maryland team that can be relentless on the boards.
"When (Achonwa) went down (against Baylor), and before she even left for the locker room, she bounced back up and went after the team and really gave them a very spirited talk and encouragement to finish the game. I think she set the tone right then.
"She came back onto the bench, she cut down the nets and she proved (to her teammates) it's not about her, it's about the team. We talked about it in the locker room (Tuesday). There were no tears, there was no mourning. We are ready to move on, and Natalie is going to be on the sidelines doing everything she can do to help us win."
Interestingly, Achonwa wasn't able to do much to help Notre Dame defeat Maryland when the two teams met up in a regular season Atlantic Coast Conference battle back in January.
Achonwa was in foul trouble early and played just three minutes in a scoreless first half for herself.
She finished with just 7 points and 3 rebounds in 21 minutes, yet Notre Dame still beat Maryland on the boards in an 87-83 victory.
Maryland head coach Brenda Frese isn't discounting the possibility that Notre Dame could fare just as well without Achonwa this time around, too. The Irish do have two all-Americans to fall back on in Kayla McBride and former Niles West star Jewell Loyd. Plus, they've played a tough schedule and are battled-tested and mentally strong.
"We faced adversity with injuries last season, and I know those injuries made us a stronger unit," Frese said. "The reality is that most of the time your team rallies and plays even better."
While Connecticut, Notre Dame and Stanford are in the Final Four together for the third time in four years, all four coaches in the Final Four have won national titles.
Maryland coach Brenda Frese won in 2006, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer won in 1990 and 1992, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw won in 2001 and Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma has won eight times (2013, 2010, 2009, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2000 and 1995).
Connecticut, which has won 44 straight games and is in the hunt for a record ninth national championship, has advanced to the Final Four for the seventh straight year.
"It feels amazing and is really unexplainable," Connecticut center Stefanie Dolson said of Connecticut's mind-numbing run. "A lot of people around the nation can't say they've made it once to the Final Four. For me to have the opportunity four times, and this being my senior year, I'm very excited."
Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw