Achonwa continues to inspire Irish

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Notre Dame freshman Diamond Thompson has played a total of 43 minutes this season.

The 6-foot-4 center from Wheaton, Ill., has not seen the court since the first round of the NCAA tournament, when she played two minutes. Thompson did not check into the game during Notre Dame's runaway 87-61 victory against No. 4 seed Maryland on Sunday in the national semifinals.

Thompson likely won't play in the national title game against top-seeded Connecticut, either. But that's OK, because she has already contributed to Notre Dame's title hopes in one heartwarming and inspiring way.

About two days ago, Thompson was talking with Notre Dame's three other freshmen about an idea she had. She was bummed, as was everyone around her, about the season-ending knee injury suffered by senior center Natalie Achonwa in the Irish's Elite Eight win against Baylor. The loss of Achonwa -- aka "Ace" -- hit Notre Dame like a ton of bricks. She is a captain and the team's emotional leader.

Thompson remembered how the Louisville men lost Kevin Ware to a gruesome injury during the 2013 NCAA tournament and honored him by putting his No. 5 on the back of their Adidas warm-up shirts.

Why couldn't Notre Dame do something similar?

"Ace contributed so much to our team," Thompson said after Sunday's victory. "So I thought, 'What better way to honor her than by putting her on our back?' Even though she can't be on the floor, we're on the floor, and we're warming up, and we're thinking about her."

Thompson asked for input from the other freshmen.

"She ran it by us first," starting point guard Lindsay Allen said. "She told us what she wanted to do and we said, 'Diamond, that is the best idea you've ever had. Ever!'"

So Thompson sent a text to assistant coach Niele Ivey, who also handles equipment and works with the team's on-campus Adidas representative. According to Ivey, "Diamond said, 'Remember Kevin Ware from Louisville? They had shirts to honor him.' And she asked me, 'What do you think about doing something like that?'"

Ivey reached out to Adidas, which loved the idea and immediately jumped on it. Less than a day later, Thompson was looking at sketches. And soon after that, Ivey told her the shirts were finished.

"I was so excited!" Thompson said.

Normally, Notre Dame's navy shooting shirts feature "The Irish Way" on the front, with nothing on the back. But the new shirts now have Achonwa's No. 11 on the back, with "Ace" below it.

The players got dressed at their hotel before Sunday's game, wearing the new shooting shirts over their jerseys, but they all put their backpacks on to make sure Achonwa didn't see the surprise.

It wasn't until they got off the bus at Bridgestone Arena and walked through security that their big surprise was revealed. One by one, the players removed their backpacks at the security checkpoint. Achonwa's eyes got wide. She asked whose idea it was, and when she found out Thompson had spearheaded the project, Achonwa looked at the freshman and nodded.

"I just smiled," Thompson said. "She was like, 'Oh my god, that's incredible.' She was really honored. She expressed how privileged she feels to have a team like ours that cares, that represents her on the court."

Thompson shook her head and added, "I'm just so happy we were able to do this for her."

By the time Notre Dame passed through security and reached its locker room, Achonwa already had a speech prepared for her teammates. As Allen relayed it: "She said, 'You put me on your back, you're supporting me out there.' But then she said that, at the end of the day, it comes down to what we can do -- what the people with the uniforms on can do. And that we need to do it for all 13 people in that room."

When Achonwa tore her ACL, everyone wondered if the injury would cost the Fighting Irish their chance at winning the national title.

But maybe everyone was asking the wrong question. Maybe losing Achonwa has stirred something in her teammates, inspiring them to become the absolute best versions of themselves.

And to contribute in any way possible.