April 2, 2012
The Fighting Irish (35-3) and Lady Bears (39-0) meet Tuesday night in the national championship, a rematch Peters and Achonwa have been dreaming of for months after their first meeting back in November was such a mismatch.
The teams squared off in the preseason WNIT final, with the Lady Bears winning in Waco 94-81 behind Griner’s 32 points on 14-of-18 shooting, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots.
Peters, plagued by foul trouble, and Achonwa, hobbled by a balky right knee in her first game back from a torn meniscus, combined to make just 3 of 15 shots for 6 points.
Griner, the AP’s Player of the Year, has Baylor on the cusp of history: no school in the NCAA has ever gone 40-0. The 6-foot-8 junior center who plays above the rim has changed the women’s game much like Lew Alcindor altered men’s college hoops a half-century ago.
Irish coach Muffet McGraw takes the challenge in stride.
“We’re kind of perimeter-oriented,” she said. “We like our guards to score a lot. I don’t think it changes a lot for us. We don’t jam the ball inside as much as some other teams do. So I think we’ll be able to run the stuff we have and maybe have to make that extra pass, which we’ve been pretty good at all year long.
“So I think that’s going to be the theme for us, is just getting her engaged and then trying to make a few extra passes.”
Still, the Irish know Griner’s going to get her share of blocks and baskets.
“She has a 7-foot-4 wingspan,” Peters said. “It’s inevitable.”
This year, Griner’s added a sweet jump shot and massive amounts of mobility to her already ridiculous repertoire of skills and thrills as she dominates both ends of the court.
“Standing next to her is not so bad, but then when she puts her arms up, it’s just a completely different world,” Peters said. “She’s just so long and athletic, and she’s done such a great job of finishing this year, much better than last year in being able to move around defenses and spin off and become way more mobile than she was. She’s just become a great athlete.”
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said there’s lots of room for growth in her game, but some say Griner is already the best female college hoopster ever.
“A lot of people get scared just from her standing inside and altering shots,” Peters said. “Even if you’re not driving, you’ll think twice about shooting and that can mess up your shot. She changes the game a lot, and we have to stay aggressive and keep going at her, regardless.”
Defending a more well-rounded Griner only adds to Notre Dame’s daunting challenge as it tries to atone for last year’s 76-70 loss to Texas A&M in the national title game in Indianapolis. The Aggies also knocked off Baylor last year, leaving both finalists with a sense of unfinished business this season.
“I think this year it’s more than just her height,” Achonwa said. “I think she’s developed a lot more of her game. It’s not just getting deep in the paint, she’s got a little jumper now, shoot from the elbow, we definitely respect her game.”
The Irish are counting on Griner being burdened by the weight of expectations. After all, she’s the best player in the country, and the Lady Bears are the ones on the cusp of history.
“I honestly believe that nobody in the country thinks we’re going to win this game,” Peters said. “So that just lets us play. It’s actually a lot harder to play knowing that everybody expects you to win. With them being undefeated, it’s their game to lose. We’ve just got to go in and play our game and do what we do best.”
Peters, a 6-2 fifth-year senior, and Achonwa, a 6-3 sophomore, will count on their superior quickness to counter Griner’s gargantuan game and maybe even tucker her out a little at altitude.
“I obviously can’t front a 6-8 player, she’ll lob it over my head. I can’t jump that high,” Peters said. “But I think we’re just going to have to push her off the block and make her as uncomfortable as possible.”
Although they don’t have the bulk or athleticism Stanford did, the Irish took note of how the Cardinal hounded Griner in the semifinals, holding her to three baskets and two blocks in a 59-47 loss Sunday night.
“I think Stanford did a great job of pulling her away from the basket, and that’s something we’ve talked about from watching their games throughout the year,” Peters said. “When she’s not near the basket, she can’t block your shot. I think they did a great job of bringing her out, and the guards did a great job of cutting to the basket and getting easy shots off.”
Achonwa, who played for Canada in the 2010 World Championships, has rebounded nicely from her knee injury that sidelined her at the start of the season. She came up big against Maryland’s bigs last week, scoring 18 points and grabbing seven rebounds in Notre Dame’s 80-49 win in the Raleigh Regional final.
“Natalie has been huge for us this year, especially with me being in foul trouble as I normally am,” Peters said. “She’s stepped up a lot, and I think it really showed in the Maryland game how much she’s improved. She was amazing that game, better than I’ve ever seen her play. We’ve made a huge transition; we know if I’m out, we’re not going to miss a step when she comes in.”
Achonwa said she just hopes the championship doesn’t turn into a whistle-filled free-throw contest.
“I think the refs let us play last night,” she said. “As long as it’s going both ways, we’re fine with that. We just want to make sure it doesn’t get chippy. We can play physical. Everyone thinks we’re smaller, that we’re weaker, that we don’t want to. But when the challenge arises, I think we’ll match it.”