By Philip Hersh
In Canada, Natalie Achonwa long has been the precocious one.
She was the youngest player on the junior national team, youngest on the senior national team at the 2010 World Championships, second youngest woman’s player of all 12 teams in the 2012 Olympics.
Achonwa clearly was a young woman ahead of her time, good enough to get on the floor for solid minutes in both the worlds and Olympics, resourceful enough to use those opportunities to accelerate her development as a player.
At Notre Dame, that development has been critical to the Irish having a season better than many expected.
That sort of surprising success picked right up from what Achonwa experienced with the Canadian national team, which made the quarterfinals of an Olympics no one thought it would qualify for, having missed the previous two Summer Games.
So did Achonwa’s game, as she moved from the bench to the starting five for a No. 1-seeded Irish team (33-1) that takes a school record 28-game winning streak into the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 against 12th-seeded Kansas (20-13) on Sunday in Norfolk, Va.
“We had lost such a great rebounder and scorer in Devereaux Peters, and those were the shoes I needed to fill,” Achonwa said. “If I could pick up five rebounds a game against the best players in the world, I knew I could do it against anybody.”
Achonwa, a 6-foot-3 junior forward from Guelph, Ont., is averaging a team-leading 9.4 rebounds, more than double her average coming into this season, and 13.8 points, nearly double her average last season. She has a school record 17 double-doubles this season after just two the previous two seasons.
“She is one of the most improved players in the country,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “Playing with the Canadian team really helped her confidence.”
Achonwa, whose father is a native of Nigeria, has been viewed as one of the best young talents in her country since seventh grade, according to basketball Canada executive director Michele O’Keefe. She coached Achonwa at 12 and coached against her the next year.
“Even then, if you made one little adjustment in her game, you never had to repeat what you were asking her to do,” O’Keefe said.
And even then, Achonwa always had an edge to her play.
“She doesn’t take any crap,” O’Keefe said.
“My physical style comes from being a middle child,” Achonwa said, laughing. “My older brother and younger sister always were teaming up against me, and no matter what happened, it was my fault.”
That feisty approach works better in international women’s basketball, where referees allow more contact, than in college, where foul trouble has been an issue. Achonwa played only 16 minutes while fouling out against Tennessee and just 14 minutes because of fouls in the Big East tournament title game against Connecticut.
When she was picking a college, the physical play of the Big East was among the factors that led Achonwa to Notre Dame, where she became the first international women’s basketball player in Irish history. The ability to stand her ground helped when she was only 17 at the senior world championships, where she was Canada’s No. 3 rebounder despite averaging just 12 minutes per game.