Notre Dame junior Natalie Achonwa scored a career-high 22 points to lead the No. 5-ranked Fighting Irish past Mercer 93-36 to improve to 3-0 on the season. (Leader photo/AMELIO RODRIGUEZ)

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Scott Novak: Notre Dame women a work in progress

Published 1:33pm Wednesday, November 21, 2012

NOTRE DAME — Having watched Notre Dame’s women drop the last two national title games, including one in person, I was interested to find out what I would see Wednesday night.

The outcome of the game was never in doubt. After all, the Fighting Irish had dropped 107 on Mercer the year before and I didn’t expect them to show any mercy against “undefeated” Bears at the Purcell Pavilion.

After the opening 10 minutes of the contest, the only thing I needed to see is if junior Natalie Achonwa was going to outscore Mercer by herself.

Achonwa, who played for Canada last summer in the Olympics, was ahead of the Bears while she was still on the floor. When she left with a career-high 22 points, Mercer only had 17 points on the scoreboard.

But I have to be honest with you. This Notre Dame team has a long way to go in order to be a serious national championship contender.

I think some of the pieces are there, I just don’t know if they are all there.

The Fighting Irish are led by All-American Skylar Diggins, who scores just seven points against Mercer. She didn’t need to score and it appeared to me that she was more interested in getting everyone involved in the offense instead.

Notre Dame, ranked No. 5 in the country, was merciless against the Bears in the opening 20 minutes of play. The Fighting Irish rolled up a 48-12 halftime lead behind the play of Achonwa and Ariel Braker inside.

The lead reached 36 points with 1:55 to play in the opening half as the Irish showed no mercy against Mercer.

The second half saw some of the Notre Dame newcomers get plenty of action. Freshman Jewell Loyd was particularly impressive. She came into the game averaging nine points, six rebounds and 2.5 assists for the 3-0 Fighting Irish.

Wednesday night, Loyd was 8-of-10 from the floor, including 1-of-2 from 3-point range for 19 points. She also grabbed six rebounds and had five assists.

But Wednesday night belonged to Achonwa. She showed me that she can be a force in the paint. The experience she gained playing in the Olympics should only help her. Getting banged around at the international level should leave her plenty prepared for what the college game can dish out.

Achonwa was 8-of-11 and had 10 rebounds and three blocks. She entered the game averaging 12.5 points and nine rebounds.

If Notre Dame wants to beat the likes of Baylor, which comes to Purcell Dec. 5, and Connecticut and compete for a Big East and national championship, it is going to have to have players like Loyd step up.

A couple of other players to keep an eye on are Michaela Mabrey and Hannah Huffman. The two freshmen are capable of scoring and getting after people at the defensive end of the court, although Mabrey was 0-for-6 against the Bears. She came into the game averaging 10 points.

Notre Dame knows what it will get from Diggins night in and night out, but players like Achonwa and Braker must be consistent if the Irish want to make a run at a championship.

A player I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about is Kayla McBride. She entered Wednesday night’s game as the team’s leading scorer at 17 points per game. But she picked up two early fouls and didn’t play much the first half. She got her third foul early in the second half. Since the starters hit the bench pretty early on in the second half, I really didn’t get a good look at her.

I know she is a capable scorer, but to help Notre Dame she has to stay on the floor. Foul trouble could be her Achilles heel.

With only three games in the book against marginal competition, the next couple of weeks could tell the story for Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish take on UCLA in Westwood Friday and then face the defending national champion Baylor Bears in early December. A date against Purdue will also be a good test for Notre Dame. The Irish and Boilermakers play at Purcell Dec. 29.

 

Scott Novak is sports editor for Leader Publications. He can be reached at scott.novak@leaderpub.com.

 

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