Meet Natalie Achonwa.
The senior forward from Guelph, Ont., stands an imposing 6-foot-3 and has WNBA teams watching intently ahead of this spring's draft. She's co-captain of a University of Notre Dame squad that went 32-0 (the best regular season in school history) and has played in the past three NCAA women's Final Fours, falling achingly short of a title each time. She was the youngest player on the 2012 Canadian Olympic team, and many call her the future keystone of the women's national program.
While much of the focus is on the many Canadian men leading their U.S. college basketball teams into March Madness, there are also 11 Canadians playing in the women's championship tournament – one of them is Achonwa, 21, who has a serious shot at a title with top-seeded Notre Dame.
She first picked up a basketball as an eight-year-old, playing with her older, very athletic brother, Adrian, whom she idolized. By sixth grade, she was asked to try out for a rep team in the Guelph Catholic Youth Organization, after a sudden growth spurt already had her reach 5-foot-7 and towering over kids her age.
"I was really lanky and awkward, and being tall wasn't cool yet," Achonwa recalled by phone from Notre Dame's campus in South Bend, Ind. "It's funny now to think how it was uncomfortable then, because now I totally embrace being so tall, except, of course, when I'm buying jeans."
Some children pick up a basketball and ramble around the court like they were born playing. Her brother was a natural athlete, but Achonwa says she wasn't. She recalls an early tryout when she raced down the floor and chucked up a painfully ugly shot.
"It went right over the basket, didn't even touch the rim or the backboard. But it didn't faze me, I just turned around and ran back on defence," Achonwa said. "My dad said, 'Well, she has no shame, so she'll be good because she's not shy to just keep shooting.' "
While she didn't have free-wheeling, organic basketball talent off the hop, she was hard-working.
"Nat had to learn quickly … [she wanted to] play with big brother, compete and be tough," recalled their mother, Marion. "She always wanted to be just like him, and one of those things was how to be a competitor."
With the Guelph CYO, Achonwa went from being the tall girl who mostly grabbed rebounds to winning MVP awards on winning teams. The tenacious youngster began playing for the Ontario team and eventually earned a spot in a short-lived Canada Basketball national training academy in Hamilton, a residential basketball high school for top Canadian teenaged prospects called the National Elite Development Academy (NEDA).
"She saw that all of her hard work wasn't enough for where she wanted to go, and she needed more talent and skill to back it up," said her father, Manny. "That's what NEDA did for her, developed her into a basketball player rather than just a hard-working kid."
Achonwa spent her Grade 10 and 11 years at NEDA, attending classes and training with top coaches and other elite prospects who would also go on to big things. She emerged alongside standouts such as sisters Michelle and Katherine Plouffe, now starring at the University of Utah and Marquette, respectively, and Kayla Alexander, who went on to play for Syracuse and then in the WNBA.
"I had a lot less of the freshman shock factor when I got to Notre Dame, because of the preparation I did there, and I attribute where I am today completely to NEDA," Achonwa said of the program which began in 2006 but was scrapped in 2009, when it stopped receiving federal funding. "I was the youngest girl there at first, and the coaches taught me to be a student of the game.
"If I ever become a millionaire, I would want to give to an academy that would help develop Canadian kids like NEDA helped me."
During that time, she was playing internationally for Canada, too, on the junior team and also as the youngest on the senior national roster at 16. She was playing alongside some women who were already professionals but, somehow, Achonwa fit in. She can recall a 40-day national team training camp in B.C. where she broke down in tears around Day 36, a youngster sick for the comforts of home.
"I had some rare 16-year-old moments, and they supported me and let me have them," Achonwa said. "I got used to being challenged and playing up with older players. I grew up pretty quick."
Many U.S. colleges recruited her. She considered Michigan State, Kentucky and Louisville, among others, but became the first international player for the Notre Dame women's squad.
"She was one of the most mature kids I've ever recruited," long-time Notre Dame head coach Ann (Muffet) McGraw said. "She had versatility and an ability to pass the ball as a good size player at 6-foot-3, but she still had guard-like skills in the way she moved and passed, which was very intriguing.
"Now, she's our vocal leader, everything on the floor goes through her."
The towering Canadian with the sleek dark ponytail is the one galvanizing Notre Dame in free throw huddles, nabbing rebounds and averaging 14 points a game. The Fighting Irish open the tournament Saturday, against 16th-seeded Robert Morris in Toledo, Ohio, pressing for the school's first title since 2001.
"We've always been the bridesmaids, but we want the big ring this year," said Achonwa, known as "Ace" at Notre Dame. "You have some great programs in Tennessee and UConn [Connecticut] who keep winning, but we want one now."
According to Canada Basketball, only two Canadian women have won NCAA titles: Lori Gear McBride with UNC in 1994, and Kelly Schumacher with UConn in 2000.
In the next few weeks, Achonwa will take her final shot before heading to the WNBA, where she is projected to be a low first– or high second-round pick in April's draft. She plans to play at the FIBA world championship in Turkey this fall – a stop along Canada's quest to qualify for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics.
"Her experience is going to grow exponentially before 2016," said Lisa Thomaidis, Canada's national team coach. "I see her as a big piece of our senior team for years to come."
Other Canadian women to watch
- Oregon State: Ruth Hamblin (Houston, B.C.); Kolbie Orum (Maple Ridge, B.C.); Jamie Weisner (Clarkston, Wash. – dual citizen)
- Dayton: Saicha Grant-Allen (Hamilton)
- North Carolina State: Jennifer Mathurin (Montreal)
- Arizona State: Isidora Purkovic (Calgary); Quinn Dornstauder (Regina)
- Nebraska: Esther Ramacieri (Repentigny, Que.)
- Albany: Jessica Féquière (Montreal); Cassandra Edwards (Brampton, Ont.)