UConn, Notre Dame recruits share pain

AP Photo/Michael Switzer

Notre Dame recruit Mychal Johnson, center, is hoping the Irish find someone to step up in Natalie Achonwa's absence.

Mychal Johnson felt her "stomach drop."

Courtney Ekmark said her heart went out.

Johnson and Ekmark normally wouldn't agree on much, especially now that the NCAA women's Final Four is upon us and their future schools -- 36-0 Notre Dame and 38-0 Connecticut -- are on an apparent collision course for Tuesday night's title game.

But the ACL injury suffered by Notre Dame star Natalie Achonwa in an NCAA quarterfinal win over Baylor has created common ground for just about everyone involved in the Irish-Huskies rivalry.

"That was a bummer," said Ekmark, a 6-foot home-schooled senior guard and UConn recruit from Phoenix, Ariz. "You never want to see a senior end their [college] career like that."

Johnson, a 5-8 senior guard from St. Joseph Central (Huntington, W.Va.), watched the Baylor game at her home, which is littered with Notre Dame posters, signs and banners.

Even the blankets read "Notre Dame."

With such evident enthusiasm for her future school, Johnson watched most of the 88-69 win over Baylor with pride and excitement.

But with five minutes left in the game, Johnson sprang to attention.

"I heard [Achonwa] scream," Johnson said. "I didn't think it was going to be too bad at first because she walked off the court.

"But my dad texted me the next day saying she tore her ACL. My stomach dropped. It's crazy how it can happen in a heartbeat."

Achonwa, a 6-3 senior center, was a third-team All-American this year and finished the season as Notre Dame's leading rebounder (7.7) and third-best scorer (14.9). She also made 61.1 percent of her shots from the floor and ranks fourth on Notre Dame's career rebounding chart.

Her numbers were even better in this year's NCAA tournament, as she posted averages of 20.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.

More than that, though, Achonwa was a leader, according to Johnson, who met with her on all five of her trips to Notre Dame's campus.

"Hopefully someone will step up," Johnson said of Notre Dame's quest of winning the title without Achonwa.

That "someone" could be 6-3 freshman Taya Reimer, who leads the team with 48 blocks even though she averages just 18.7 minutes off the bench.

Reimer replaced Achonwa for three games at the start of this season and did well, averaging 12.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists. That included 19 points and 13 rebounds against then-No. 19 Michigan State.

"She has been playing well," Johnson said optimistically of Reimer. "She gives us a big body inside."

Achonwa's injury also was a topic of conversation at the McDonald's All American Games earlier this week in Chicago.

Notre Dame recruit Kathryn Westbeld, a 6-2 senior forward at Fairmont (Kettering, Ohio), referenced Achonwa when asked about Notre Dame's pursuit of perfection.

"I'm thinking of Natalie and her injury," Westbeld said. "I hope the team can pull together, bringing the strength of their bench to overcome Natalie's absence."

Ekmark, of course, isn't expecting that to happen. She firmly believes her Huskies will beat Stanford in Sunday's semifinals. And, if Notre Dame gets past Maryland in its Sunday semifinal, Ekmark is not worried at all.

"I don't think it's much of a rivalry -- at least it hasn't been until recently," Ekmark said. "UConn has won way more games. It's turned into a little bit of a rivalry lately -- but not much."

Ekmark was referring to Notre Dame's three close wins over UConn last season when both schools were members of the Big East Conference.

The Irish won twice during the regular season: 73-72 at Storrs, Conn., and 96-87 in triple overtime at South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame then won 61-59 in the Big East tournament. But, on the way to its eighth national title, UConn won the game that mattered most, blasting Notre Dame 83-65 in the NCAA semifinals.

"I would be excited to see it happen," Ekmark said of a potential UConn-Notre Dame rematch. "That's part of the reason you come to a school like UConn, to play those types of games.

"But the reality is that anyone who is good is UConn's rival because everyone is trying to beat us."

Special rivalry or just two powerful programs, whatever this is that Notre Dame and UConn have going it figures to remain just as intense next season when several prize recruits join the fray.

That includes Notre Dame recruit Brianna Turner, the Gatorade national player of the year and a 6-3 forward from Manvel (Pearland, Texas).

Turner, who led Manvel to a state title, also earned MVP honors this week at the McDonald's game after hitting a last-minute jumper to lead the West to an 80-78 win over the East.

"I would have trouble choosing one victory over the other," Turner said when asked about the state title and the McDonald's win. "Both are special to me."

Turner had a lot less trouble, though, when asked to predict a winner in Nashville.

"Notre Dame!" she said emphatically. "Go, Irish!"

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