NOTRE DAME — As Notre Dame advances deeper into the tournament, it will have to reach deeper into its bench.
The Irish will be without one of its stalwart stars as it heads to Nashville for the Final Four. Starting senior forward Natalie Achonwa tore the ACL in her left knee against Baylor and will miss the Final Four.
Achonwa fell on the floor after a hard foul late in the game against Baylor on Monday, March 31. After clutching her knee for several moments, Achonwa got up, yelled words of encouragement at her team and limped off to the locker room.
"It sucked the air right out of the room," head coach Muffet McGraw said following the 88-69 win. "You hate to see a player go down like that."
Notre Dame is now tasked with replacing the 20.5 points, nine rebounds and 71 percent field goal shooting Achonwa averaged in the tournament.
The most obvious candidate to replace Achonwa's productivity is fellow starting senior forward Ariel Braker. Though her numbers aren't as high as Achonwa's, McGraw called Braker the "X-factor" against Baylor.
Braker was 4-of-4 from the field and 2-of-2 from the free throw line, scoring 10 points, pulling down six rebounds and grabbing a game-high four steals against the Bears.
"She was 100 percent from the field and from the free throw line," McGraw said. "What she does defensively and rebounding-wise, it sometimes gets overlooked."
But who will fill in the second spot in the post? Prepare to see a freshman earn her wings.
Hamilton Southeastern High School graduate Taya Reimer will likely be called upon to step up in the biggest game of her young career.
Reimer played 20 minutes against Baylor, shooting 2-of-7 from the field to finish with four points, four rebounds and one block. The 6-foot-3 forward isn't exactly green, either. She has started four games and logged the fifth-most minutes this year, more than even Braker, a starter.
Reimer has the most blocks on the team (48 to Achonwa's 39) and has averaged 7.4 points and 4.6 rebounds this season.
"Hopefully one of them will have a big game, but hopefully all of them will have a pretty good one," McGraw told the Associated Press Tuesday. "That’s all we need."
Beyond Braker and Reimer, Notre Dame's experience at forward drops off. Freshman Kristina Nelson and junior Markisha Wright are next in line, but neither has seen significant playing time throughout the season.
When Braker and Reimer need a breather, expect to see 5-10 guard Michaela Mabrey and 5-11 Madison Cable rotate in for a four-guard front.
"(Mabrey) has been phenomenal off the bench," McGraw said. "She just changes the game when she comes in. You know she's going to shoot a 3 as soon as she crosses half-court. ... I think she can really stretch the defense and change things."
Top-seeded Notre Dame (36-0) will face the winner of third-seeded Louisville and fourth-seeded Maryland in the Final Four Sunday, April 6. The national championship is Tuesday.
"We still believe," McGraw said. "(Achonwa) got us to this point, now somebody else has to finish it."