Irish must prove doubters wrong

A few days after Notre Dame lost to Connecticut in the national semifinals last season, Muffet McGraw gathered her returning players around a whiteboard and wrote a simple message.

The Fighting Irish were losing star point guard Skylar Diggins, but their goal for the following season, as McGraw spelled it out, would remain the same: "Win the national championship." Then, the coach talked about how they all might go about filling the leadership vacancy -- as well as replacing the points, assists and defense -- created by Diggins' graduation.

McGraw didn't think any one player would be able to step into the shoes of the all-everything guard, but she was confident that if everyone did just a little bit more across the board, Notre Dame could be just as good, and perhaps even better, this season.

Now, nearly a year later, McGraw's squad is undefeated, 36-0, heading into a national semifinal matchup against Maryland on Sunday (6:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, WatchESPN).

And that lesson -- how to replace a productive player -- is particularly valuable at the moment, as Notre Dame enters the Final Four without starting center Natalie Achonwa, who tore the ACL in her left knee during the team's win against Baylor in the Elite Eight. The 6-foot-3 senior, who averaged 14.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per game this season, is missing her first contest since she arrived in South Bend, Ind., in 2010.

So what's McGraw's solution for replacing Achonwa?

"As soon as we found out about Natalie, we told the team, 'No one person is responsible for replacing what Natalie gives us,'" McGraw told espnW. "Even Taya Reimer, a freshman who is taking her spot in the starting lineup, doesn't need to all of a sudden give us a double-double. I don't want any pressure on one player; I want them to all think about one or two more things they can do that, collectively, will add up to what Natalie brought."

It's a tall order, to be sure, but perhaps no other team in the country is better equipped to replace a player of Achonwa's caliber. All season the Fighting Irish have operated as an ensemble cast, with everyone doing more, especially senior guard Kayla McBride (17.2 points, 5.2 boards, 3.9 assists per game) and sophomore guard Jewell Loyd (18.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG).

Diggins was the heart and soul of the program for four years, but that also meant Notre Dame's fate often rested on how she performed. "Last year was Sky, Sky, Sky," McBride said. "She did everything for us. This year, our opponents have to ask, 'How can we contain all of them? Who can we contain and who can we leave open?' Everybody is a weapon and everybody is a threat on the court at all times."

As much as they all appreciated Diggins -- crediting her for making them better players -- her teammates also craved the opportunity to show how good Notre Dame could be with new leadership. "They hadn't had a chance to lead," McGraw said. "Skylar was the voice. We didn't need anybody else, because she carried the load. So you wondered how they would respond, and they answered that quickly."

McBride remembers the team's pick-up games over the summer, with everyone battling and challenging each other, as if everything was on the line. She knew, as did all of her teammates, that they were building something special. They had confidence, a swagger, and, ironically, much of the credit for that attitude belongs to Diggins, whose leadership style depended upon making her teammates believe they could accomplish great things. She would routinely go around the locker room and pump people up, letting them know what she expected of them, and if she hit someone with a pass for a corner 3, she believed the shooter would knock it down.

Diggins knew, for example, that McBride wasn't a natural vocal leader; but she also knew the team would need McBride to become one. "I'll never forget last season, in the Big East title game against UConn, when I was standing on the court next to Sky and she said she needed me to be ready," McBride said. "She needed me to take over the team -- and she said this while she was still on the team, just looking ahead."

In listening to McBride and her teammates, you get the sense that Achonwa has had a similar impact on the Fighting Irish.

"I know Natalie doesn't believe we're losing anything," McBride said. "She wishes she could be out there, but she believes people can produce as much, if not more. It's the same mentality we had at the start of the season: Who's going to step up? Where are we going to get the production from? Who's going to fill the void?"

The answer, they hope, is everyone.

"We had to prove we would be good without Skylar, and we've already heard people say we can't win without Natalie," McGraw said. "So, we have a chip on our shoulder -- again."

A 36-0 underdog? That's a pretty impressive chip.