TAMPA BAY -- Taya Reimer wasn't on the court the last time Notre Dame lost a game. She wasn't on the bench. She wasn't in the arena. She wasn't even in the state.
It isn't a coincidence that she is here as the Fighting Irish return to the state of Florida for the first time since that loss in Miami nearly four months ago. And if Notre Dame is to beat South Carolina on Sunday night and return to the national championship game for the fourth time in five seasons, it won't be a coincidence that she will be on the court.
Notre Dame's brand and its recent history, in addition to the presence of All-American Jewell Loyd, earned the program a place in the top four in preseason polls. Yet it's the growth and development of a young roster that earned the Fighting Irish a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and a place among the final quartet of teams. Lindsay Allen grew into a point guard who punished defenses that played her to pass. Freshman Brianna Turner took little time to adjust to the college game on either end of the floor. Madison Cable, Hannah Huffman and Michaela Mabrey, all played more and contributed more.
But no one person traveled a more public or more testing path than Reimer, who briefly left the team in January and then played the best basketball of her career upon her return.
"Taya has been probably the difference in our season," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said Saturday.
She went on to add that the sophomore post player has played like an All-American since the middle of January, which coincides with her return from a self-imposed hiatus. That might be a stretch in a world that includes frontcourt players like Minnesota's Amanda Zahui B. and Baylor's Nina Davis, but the praise is understandable. It's not that Reimer is Notre Dame's best player, but when she is at her best alongside Loyd, Allen, Turner and the rest, the Fighting Irish have too many good players for most opponents to deal with.
"I think Taya is probably one of the biggest factors in taking our team from a good team to a great team into a national championship-caliber team," said Huffman. "I think when she does all those little things, and there is rebounding and points -- it might not be 20 points, but those 11 [points] and 10 [rebounds] nights she's been consistently having throughout this tournament, it's just such a calming effect on us."
The final weeks of December and the early days of January were anything but calm.
Notre Dame took the court to warm up before a Dec. 13 game against Michigan wearing T-shirts bearing the phrase "I Can't Breathe," a reference to the death of Eric Garner in police custody in New York. The act of player-inspired expression had the support of the coaching staff and the school administration, but inserted into a wide-ranging national debate, it predictably drew both praise and criticism nationally but also locally in the South Bend area, usually a bastion of unqualified support for Fighting Irish athletes.
"I wasn't surprised because that's definitely a very touchy subject and it's gotten a lot of attention through the country," said Reimer, one of the players who put the idea into motion. "Everybody has very strong opinions about it, so I wasn't surprised because we all kind of expected that. I think it was important for us to have a stance on that. It was something I personally felt very strongly about."
"She came back a different person. I couldn't have been happier with giving her the time and letting her figure it out." Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw on Taya Reimer's hiatus
On the court, apart from a 76-58 loss at home against Connecticut on Dec. 6, the Fighting Irish continued to beat all comers. But with the ACC season on the horizon, they weren't rebounding or getting the post play that had been such important parts of Final Four appearances the past four seasons. Reimer, in particular, seemed to struggle to match the contributions and intensity of predecessor Natalie Achonwa. More fell on the shoulders of Turner and fellow freshman Kathryn Westbeld.
With all of that as background, news broke during the first week of January that Reimer had separated from the team. Speculation was that a transfer was imminent, increasingly a trend in women's college basketball, although the team officially said only that Reimer had taken up McGraw on an offer to take some time to think things over.
Without Reimer, Notre Dame lost to Miami by 15 points on Jan. 8. Cause and effect are tricky -- Loyd was under the weather that game and Miami's Adrienne Motley turned in a fantastic effort -- but the result seemed proof of a rock-solid program's shaken stability.
Reimer politely declined to answer a question about whether her decision had more to do with basketball or concerns off the court, although McGraw suggested at the time it was about unhappiness on the court.
"I think that period was just kind of -- I was going through a lot of things personally," Reimer said. "That was me trying to figure out myself and get myself together."
By the time the team played Boston College on Jan. 11, Reimer had rejoined them, although she sat on the bench in street clothes for that game before returning to the court four days later at North Carolina. It is from that moment forward that everyone, from coaches to teammates, says a new Reimer emerged, more aggressive and more committed.
She totaled 16 points and eight rebounds in the ACC final against Florida State's rugged front line, 14 points and 10 rebounds in a closer-than-expected NCAA tournament game against DePaul and nine points and eight rebounds in the regional final against Baylor.
"I just think there is a little bit more of a chip on her shoulder," Huffman said. "I see her work ethic, she's been getting in the gym late nights and working super hard in practice. Not that she wasn't a hard worker before, but there is just that extra fire you see in someone when they take themselves to a different level that they didn't know they could before."
Perhaps, then, the season needed to play out the way it did for Reimer to reach this point. Perhaps she needed to find a social voice and act on what was important to her, even if it meant upsetting some who otherwise supported her. Perhaps she needed the jarring break from the team to put into focus what she wanted out of her time on the court.
"I wonder about that," McGraw said. "I think sometimes you need that moment. You have that moment, and everybody has it in their life at some point where you're like, 'What road am I going to take? Where am I? Am I where I want to be?' To have a little introspection.
"She came back a different person. I couldn't have been happier with giving her the time and letting her figure it out."
Adversity has been a regular character in Reimer's time in South Bend. A year ago she found herself in the spotlight at the Final Four when suddenly handed a starting position following Achonwa's season-ending injury in the final seconds of the regional final. The glare of attention is not something that the Indiana native -- whose default facial expression seems to be a grin -- seems eager to seek. It just finds her.
"She's really light-hearted, loves to laugh and be goofy," Huffman said. "I think that when you're around Taya, she just makes the room a lot warmer."
That is not what anyone would write on the job description for a post player. "Goofy" certainly isn't the first word that would come to mind for anyone who watched Achonwa grind opponents into submission the past four seasons. It isn't a word that would describe associate head coach Carol Owens, an imposing presence who was herself an outstanding post player at Northern Illinois in the late 1980s and the person who works most closely with Reimer -- not to mention the person who therefore pushes her the most.
Yet Owens talked Saturday about Reimer helping to teach her, the coach, how to get the best out of the soft-spoken player over the course of this seasons ups and downs.
"I don't have to coach her like I coached Natalie," Owens said. "I can coach her by having a conversation, really more a dialogue like 'What do you see? This is what I see.' I can kind of get her to step outside [herself]. Our relationship is very important to both of us, and I think our relationship has grown to the point where she understands me and I understand her -- and she understands what I'm trying to get out of her a lot better."
Notre Dame needs Reimer, both because she is a gifted player with a soft touch on her elbow jumpers and quick feet in the paint and because the position she plays is integral to the team's offense. It demands players who can pass and shoot from the high post, players who can pull the likes of Alaina Coates out of their defensive comfort zones. It needs post players who can quickly turn rebounds into outlet passes that fuel transition.
And never was that needed more than it will be Sunday against a front line as deep and gifted as South Carolina's. Once a question mark, Notre Dame needs frontcourt answers.
"Every game we want to out-rebound our opponent, so that's always a goal," Owens said. "It's not necessarily South Carolina; it's a goal we've had all year. We need to come out aggressive on both ends. If we're aggressive on both ends, I think we'll be fine.
"But I think ultimately, we're successful when we're sharing the ball and we're playing together."
They are best when all five parts play together. All five parts made this Florida trip.