There’s no feeling like returning home, and when the Notre Dame and Duquesne women’s basketball teams face off Sunday in Canada, a few players will have that opportunity.
Notre Dame’s Natalie Achonwa and Duquesne’s Wumi Agunbiade, Jose-Ann Johnson, Oditte Odisho and Brianna Thomas all will return to their native country for this matchup at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto, even though the latter two are dealing with an injury and redshirt, respectively.
“We have planned this game for roughly 24 months and are excited to have the opportunity to play a top-five team on a neutral floor,” Duquesne coach Dan Burt said in an exclusive interview. “To do it in front of a very large contingent of Duquesne fans and family members makes it even better. We are expecting a pro-Duquesne crowd.”
The idea was originally crafted by Burt and former Fighting Irish coach Jonathan Tsipis, who now coaches at George Washington. Both teams wanted to get their players back home and found a mutual fit.
“That was our primary goal and we generally do that here when we have players from outside of the region, we always try to go back to their hometown to play, so this worked out really well for us,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said in an exclusive interview. “The NCAA really helped us out in figuring out how we could schedule the game.”
No. 5/6 Notre Dame comes into the contest with a 5-0 record, including its most recent win against 25th-ranked DePaul. The Dukes lost to DePaul earlier in the season. The Fighting Irish also have Achonwa back after missing a month due to arthroscopic knee surgery. Achonwa has since played in two games and had averaged 10.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
“She’s really ahead of schedule and we were so thankful that she was ready to play [at Pennsylvania University] and get the first game out of the way in terms of getting comfortable,” McGraw said. “It’s hard to take a month off and then come out and not look a little bit rusty. It was great that she got one game under her belt and then came back for the home game against DePaul and played really well.
“She’s still not 100 percent, but we’re just excited to have her back in the lineup, we really need her because she’s a very experienced player for us.”
Offensively, Notre Dame has six players in double figures led by Jewell Loyd’s 17.4 points per game. Erie, Pa., native Kayla McBride averages 14.2 points and seven rebounds a game. This is all according to McGraw’s “team-oriented” offensive system where there are many capable options and it can be anyone’s night.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Fighting Irish hold their opponents to 57.6 points per game and out-rebound the opposition 51-29. With freshman Taya Reimer leading the way with 8.8 rebounds per game, McGraw said that this is her “best rebounding team” in her 27th year at Notre Dame and 32nd overall in coaching.
Burt knows that this statistic may determine the winner on Sunday.
“Rebounding is absolutely critical in this game…Notre Dame’s margins are incredible,” Burt said. “They play very hard and attacking the glass is a big part of their identity. Our starting five might be a little bigger than Notre Dame, but tomorrow we will have to match and surpass the intensity that they go to the boards with. Pride will be on the line tomorrow.”
Duquesne comes in having won its past three games while allowing an average of 49.3 points during the stretch. Now, the Dukes (5-2) head to Canada, which Burt said is the most important place his team recruits outside of Western Pennsylvania.
Leading the way this season has been Raegan Moore who has turned heads ever since being given the starting shooting guard position. She averages 19.7 points per game. April Robinson also will be an important part of this match up averaging 11 points per game, and 4.9 assists per game. Robinson scored 20 in Tuesday’s win against Miami (Ohio) and her assist totals are up from the 2.4 she had last season. Her 11 assists against Kent State earlier this season were a career high.
The key match-up in this contest very well may be Agunbiade against Achonwa. These two will likely be guarding each other at various points, but the two have quite a bit in common. Both are seniors, Canadian, leaders for their respective teams and 1,000-point scorers.
“We haven’t played a team that has had that good of a post player as [Agunbiade] is, so it will be a challenge for the whole team,” McGraw said.
Burt knows how determined these two will be and while they won’t match up for the entire game, these two will do battle in the post.
“Because of the way both teams defend, we will see them defend each other at times, but both teams will switch and have different defenders guarding Wumi and Natalie,” Burt said. “Our size allows us to defend Natalie with Wumi, Orsi [Szecsi] or Jose [Ann Johnson]. As former national teammates, I’m sure they are ready to match up Sunday afternoon.”
Burt told the media prior to the start of regular season play that Agunbiade has become more vocal and has challenged her teammates to play better. The 6-foot-2 forward averages 11 points per game to go along with 6.7 rebounds. Going into this contest, Agunbiade has 1,340 career points and needs 10 points to pass Loui Hall for eighth place on the program’s all-time scoring list.
Achonwa has been a key in the post for three plus seasons now, and is considered one of the top five current post players in the women’s game. While McGraw says Achonwa is not 100 percent, the DePaul game was according to the 6-3 forward “a good knee day” and her game is quickly getting back to form.
McGraw knows that her team is in for a challenge against the Dukes.
“They’re a team with tremendous talent, they work really hard, they play well together and they play to their strengths,” McGraw said. “They seem like a very smart team, their zones are really effective and they’ve scored a lot of points. Anytime you look at a team averaging around 80 points a game, that’s going to be a really big challenge for our defense.”
Regardless of the outcome, Burt hopes that this stop is the first of many.
The game will not be televised, although the 3,000 plus seats at the Mattamy Athletic Centre are all sold out, which shows the interest in this matchup.