SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Natalie Achonwa, Ariel Braker and Kayla McBride, otherwise known as Notre Dame's senior class, looked on from the sideline as their teammates occupied the court during a recent practice. The offensive set the younger players were trying to execute rapidly dissolved into confusion just short of something fit for the Benny Hill theme. Sitting out with various ailments, the seniors winced and watched.
"Oh God, oh God, oh God," McBride muttered quietly to herself. "Timeout."
Without any referees around to hear her plea, play instead sputtered unsteadily on.
Preseason mistakes notwithstanding, the talent arrayed on the court at that moment suggested the future remains bright in South Bend. But much as has been the case for three consecutive runs to the Final Four, the present will run more smoothly with the ball in the hands of one of the nation's best guards -- or at least with her on the court.
But that person isn't Skylar Diggins anymore. Replacing her is a challenge, but so, too, is stopping McBride.
Asked about McBride, Louisville coach Jeff Walz rolled through a checklist of praise. Her relentless competitiveness impressed him most. He was willing to bet that she was the player who won every drill in practice. Then he paused and asked what year she was. Assured she was a senior, he offered the chuckle of someone separated from the Fighting Irish for one year as a result of conference realignment.
"Good," Walz said. "I'm really glad that she's going to play her last year in the ACC. And then when we join it next year, I won't have to play against her."
That sentiment, as much as anything else, is the most apt description of a player who, if not necessarily underappreciated, has at least been overshadowed until now. You can talk about the individual skills that make McBride one of the best players in the country, a legitimate contender for ACC player of the year. You can talk about her size and strength as a guard who can play on or off the ball, her unshakable body control getting to the basket, feather touch on mid-range jumpers, and her defense. The individual components make for a long list. But it's the sum of the parts that carries the day.
You don't want to see her on the other side of the court when it matters. What she does best is whatever you don't want her to do.
Consider what McBride did in her team's biggest games a season ago. In seven games against Baylor, Connecticut, Duke and Tennessee, McBride averaged 18.7 points, three points better than she averaged in the rest of her team's games (she averaged 16 points in two wins against Louisville). The Fighting Irish lost the one game they most wanted in New Orleans, but they still went 5-2 in those seven contests.
That Diggins was the team's driving force, in word and deed, is undeniable. There might come a day when she is displaced as the greatest player in program history, but it isn't likely to come soon. Nevertheless, four starters and five reserves return this season, joined by a freshman class that includes top-five recruit Taya Reimer and fellow McDonald's All-American Lindsay Allen, who will step in as the starting point guard.
Tennessee struggled to get back to the Final Four after Candace Parker. Connecticut took a hiatus after Diana Taurasi. Even the most successful programs feel those kind of losses. But life after Diggins begins now.
"I think [Skylar] has done so much for women's basketball, for Notre Dame, for me as a player," McBride said. "It's going to be different, but I think she's prepared us well enough for us to handle it from here on out. Especially us seniors, we played with her for three years, we all know what she did, but it's kind of our turn, that's how we're taking it.
"This is our team and we're trying to get our own identity."
Her coach provided the subtext the players are too diplomatic to voice. Then Muffet McGraw also offered a blunt assessment of the responsibility that comes with their words.
"They're really done with the question," McGraw said of players who spent three years answering questions about what it's like playing with Diggins and now get an endless stream of them about the prospect of playing without her. "But they've got to find their way because she did so much. And K-Mac didn't have to do anything. Ace [Achonwa] has always been a leader, so it comes naturally to her."
Perhaps it's no surprise that McGraw is challenging the soft-spoken McBride to take on her share of the leadership role alongside Achonwa. It was how McBride responded to challenges that first caught McGraw's eye. The coach of a program like Notre Dame sees a lot of high school players with physical gifts and an ability to put points on the board. When McGraw watched McBride, she saw someone best when pushed. If an opponent scored on her, she wanted the ball and she wanted to score. Then she wanted to shut her foe down on the next trip. Defense can be learned, a shot tweaked. Competitiveness is innate.
Not that there wasn't some work to do when McBride arrived from Erie, Pa.
"I came in as a freshman thinking I was invincible, and I felt like I already had it all figured out," McBride said. "Coming from a small town where everybody knew who I was, and then you come here and nobody knows who I am, it was a rude awakening, but it was also a life lesson. It changed my life, honestly."
The defining moment came after 19 games her freshman season. Like her senior classmates these days, McBride is seeking her fourth consecutive Final Four. But it would be just the third in which she participated. She was ruled ineligible for the second semester of her freshman season for reasons the program still does not officially discuss. She had to watch as the Fighting Irish upset Connecticut in the Final Four and then lost the title game against Texas A&M by six points. In the last game she played that season, McBride scored eight points. You do the math.
"That was pretty much a smack in the face because basketball was all that I ever knew," McBride said. "It was the reason I was at this school, and it was taken from me. So it was a life lesson. I felt like I let my family down and my team down. That was the biggest thing for me, I'm the oldest of four [siblings], so being a role model for them and feeling like I let them down, that was the biggest disappointment, and I knew that I had to change things."
She returned as a starter her sophomore season and averaged better than 11.6 points per game. That rose to 15.9 points per game a season ago, when she also finished with more assists than turnovers for the first time and continued to shoot 90 percent from the free throw line.
The challenge this season is not hers alone. In the running with Stefanie Dolson as the best passing post in the country, Achonwa should be a star in her own right. And it's the backcourt partnership between McBride and sophomore Jewell Loyd that makes it that much easier to map out a way for this team to make the trip to Nashville.
"They're both so hard to guard in different ways, Jewell because of the speed and athletic ability and Kayla because of the craftiness," McGraw said. 'They both can score a lot. And they both can shoot it really well, they both can get to the rim, but they do it a little differently. I think they fit so well because you have to have two really good defenders to guard them, so you're going to have to make some choices to see who are you going to try to shut down."
To ready herself for more minutes this season, McBride spent the offseason running mile upon mile to tone her body and improve her stamina. To prepare for handling the ball, she spent hours in the gym, both in Erie and South Bend, working on ball handling and playing against guys to deal with the bumps and bruises that even the new rules interpretations in college basketball are unlikely to eliminate.
Along with Achonwa, it's her team to lead. All she has to do is say the word.
"You have to be willing to say what needs to be said without worrying about how people feel about it," McGraw said. "That was Skylar's trademark, I think, in a way. She could yell at you and then you went in the locker room and everything was cool. That's not always easy with girls, but that's something Kayla hasn't learned yet."
If that sounds like a challenge, those seem to be what McBride does best.