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Last updated: Wed. Apr. 02, 2014 - 03:14 pm EDT

Luck of the Irish tested

Lose All-American Achonwa to knee injury for Final Four

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Final Four

at Nashville, Tenn. Sunday

Maryland (28-6) vs. Notre Dame (36-0), 6:30 p.m.

Stanford (33-3) vs. UConn (38-0), 9 p.m. Tuesday

Championship, 8:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN

SOUTH BEND — Natalie Achonwa had everything going for her.

The Notre Dame women’s basketball team was undefeated and in contention for the national title. She was ticketed for the WNBA draft.

Now it’s all in question.

Tests of Achonwa’s left knee Tuesday morning revealed the worst news possible: a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

The Irish’s 6-foot-3 senior star, one of their captains and a third-team All-American, will miss the rest of the season.

Top-seeded Notre Dame carries a 36-0 record into the women’s Final Four next weekend, though one of the primary reasons for that unblemished mark will be on the bench in street clothes.

“Natalie has been an extremely valuable contributor to our success throughout her career, and that won’t change,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said in a statement issued by the school. “Her voice will be heard loud and clear in the locker room, on the bench and in the huddle.”

Achonwa played at a remarkably high level in the first four games of the NCAA tournament, averaging 20.5 points and 9.8 rebounds while shooting 71.4 percent from the field (30 of 42) and 78.6 percent on free throws (22 of 28).

Notre Dame lacks an interior player who can match Achonwa’s mobility, leadership, passing and scoring.

The Irish are still banking on Achonwa’s wisdom.

“I know that our team is going to continue to feed off her energy, passion and leadership as we head into the Final Four,” McGraw said.

In line for a larger role are forwards Ariel Braker and Taya Reimer, the only other posts in the Notre Dame rotation.

Braker, a 6-1 senior, is a starter, with the 6-3 freshman Reimer coming off the bench. While solid contributors, they are used to playing in lineups that include Achonwa.

“We love her,” Reimer said. “She’s been our leader. Part of the reason we’ve been playing so hard all year is because we want to get a championship for her.”

Braker said the Irish frontcourt will lose a level of comfort it had based on Achonwa’s presence.

“Playing with her down there, if I’m going over to help, I know that she’s going to have my person or my box-out,” Braker said.

When Achonwa missed the first three games of the season, McGraw started Reimer.

In Sunday’s national semifinal against either third-seeded Louisville or No. 4 seed Maryland, McGraw could instead opt for a smaller lineup to space the floor. Madison Cable and Michaela Mabrey would be the obvious candidates for a promotion in that scenario.

A date for Achonwa’s surgery had not been scheduled as of Tuesday night. An ACL tear typically requires as many as 12 months of recovery and rehabilitation.

Achonwa suffered the injury with 4:51 remaining in Monday’s 88-69 win over Baylor, a game the Irish led by 11 at the time.

While their title hopes are clouded, the Irish still have two other All-Americans in Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd, and they remain confident.

“Our team has shown mental toughness all year,” McBride said. “People have been out. What makes us so dangerous is it’s not just one person.”

cgoff@jg.net


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