May 12, 2017
By Leigh Torbin
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – While a Notre Dame education prepares Irish women’s basketball players well for life after the game, several are fortunate enough to wait a few years after graduation to live life after the game. The WNBA kicks off its 2017 season on Saturday with four former Notre Dame players playing professionally in Natalie Achonwa (Indiana Fever), Skylar Diggins-Smith (Dallas Wings), Jewell Loyd (Seattle Storm) and Kayla McBride (San Antonio Stars).
With four players in the league, the Irish are one shy of their school-record WNBA alumni total from 2015 and 2016. Notre Dame has seen at least one of its alumni compete in the WNBA for each of the past 20 seasons, dating back to when Coquese Washington made the school’s WNBA debut in 1998 with the Liberty.
Three of the four Irish alumni will be in action this weekend, beginning at 5 p.m. on Saturday when Irish fans will be able to see one of their own on national TV for the first time this year as Loyd’s Strom faces the Los Angeles Sparks on ESPN from the Staples Center.
Achonwa is in her third year actively playing in the WNBA, and her fourth overall, missing her rookie year of 2014 with a knee injury. The first round draft pick in 2014 started 17 of her 28 games for the Fever in 2015 and appeared in 24 more last summer. She averages just shy of six points per game for Indiana over her career. She started Indiana’s first exhibition game this year, scoring 11 points with four rebounds while adding six points and five rebounds in the second preseason contest.
Diggins-Smith enters her fifth year in the WNBA as one of the league’s most recognizable faces. She averages 14.4 points per game for her WNBA career, led by a 20.1 mark for the 2014 Tulsa Shock, along with 4.2 assists per game. The 2014 All-Star took some time off from training camp to get married to former Notre Dame football wide receiver Daniel Smith on April 29. On May 6, she was back on the court for Dallas and looked ready for the regular season after scoring 13 points with five assists in a team-high 21:57 of playing time.
The 2015 WNBA Rookie of the Year, Loyd enters her third season with the Storm and will look to build upon her 16.5 points per game average in 2016 that ranked eighth in the WNBA. Loyd tallied 14 points in Seattle’s first exhibition game, an 86-64 win over Phoenix, and followed it up with a team-high 13 points in Sunday’s exhibition, also against the Mercury. While mere exhibitions, Loyd’s 13.5 points per game tied for seventh in the WNBA this preseason.
McBride is in her fourth season for San Antonio, starting 76 of her 78 games played and recording a 14.2 points per game average. She averaged 17.1 points and 4.0 rebounds per game last season and will have plenty of eyes on her and the Stars who were bolstered with by two of the draft’s top five picks in Kelsey Plum and Nia Coffey.
McBride did not play with the Stars during WNBA exhibition games for a good reason – she is busy competing for a championship. McBride netted 30 points and grabbed eight rebounds on Tuesday in leading Yakin Dogu Universitesi to a 2-0 lead over Fenerbahce in the best-of-five Turkish championship. Game three is set for Friday night in Istanbul.
The Stars have a Notre Dame influence in the front office in addition to McBride’s place on the court as Ruth Riley enters her second year as San Antonio’s General Manager. Riley played 13 seasons in the WNBA herself, capped by winning a pair of championships (2003 and 2006) with the Detroit Shock. Riley was named Finals MVP in 2003, keyed by her 27-point effort in the decisive Game 3 win over the Los Angeles Sparks. The native Hoosier knows about winning as Riley is one of just 12 women to ever win a collegiate national championship, a WNBA championship and an Olympic gold medal.
Leigh Torbin, athletics communications associate director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2013 and coordinates all media efforts for Notre Dame’s women’s basketball and men’s golf teams. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts, Torbin graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in sports management. He has previously worked full-time on the athletic communications staffs at Vanderbilt, Florida, Connecticut and UCF.