When the Notre Dame women's basketball team boarded a larger-than-usual charter jet in South Bend for their flight to the Big East tournament in Hartford, 6'3" junior center Natalie Achonwa noted that the plane had three-seat rows, and that three of them were unclaimed. Knowing how much she and her fellow upperclassmen loved to stretch out and snooze, she grabbed the manifest and directed teammates to seats where they could have the whole row to themselves. "Ariel, 4A!" she barked. "Skylar, 4D! Kayla, 5A!"
Achonwa is the same way on the court: When she sees a void, she fills it, and she relishes the role of telling the Irish where to go and what to do. (Achonwa's nickname is Ace, but her teammates sometimes call her another three-letter word—Mom.) Her directorial instinct is just one thing that makes Achonwa invaluable on a team riding a 26-game winning streak into the NCAA tournament. "You probably appreciate her most when she's not on the floor," says Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "She's important everywhere; she's our best post defender, our best rebounder, our best talker. We're just better with her in the game."
A high-wattage star headlines each of the tournament's projected top four seeds. (The brackets, which can be found on SI.com, were announced after SI went to press.) The Irish have senior point guard Skylar Diggins, the gritty yet glamorous two-time Big East player of the year who counts 300,000 Twitter followers among her fans. Stanford depends on junior All-America forward Chiney Ogwumike, who delivered a staggering 22.4 points and 13.1 rebounds a game. Connecticut features 6-foot sophomore forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, whose 17.4 points and 50.0% three-point shooting led the team. And defending champion Baylor boasts 6'8" center Brittney Griner, the likely repeat national player of the year, who has too many scoring, rebounding, blocking and dunking records to detail here. But none of these teams, which are each expected to reach a third consecutive Final Four, will get to New Orleans without complementary players such as Achonwa, whose particular, sometimes peculiar, roles have proved to be indispensable.
Mikaela Ruef's inaugural career start for Stanford—against Baylor at the Rainbow Wahine Classic in Honolulu on Nov. 16—seemed like an especially cruel hazing ritual. Her first defensive assignment? Griner. Her first thought? "Are you kidding me?" says Ruef, a 6'3" senior forward.
Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer's logic was simple: She didn't want Ogwumike or second-leading scorer Joslyn Tinkle getting into foul trouble. Ruef, who had averaged 1.6 points and 2.1 rebounds over her first two years and sat out the 2011--12 season with plantar fasciitis, had five expendable fouls to give. But to the surprise of everyone, including herself, Ruef outrebounded Griner 12--6 and helped hold one of the most dominant players the women's game has ever seen to just four points in the first half. Griner ended up with 22, but Stanford won 71--69, snapping the Lady Bears' winning streak at 44.
A management science and engineering major from Beavercreek, Ohio, Ruef has always been known for her eccentricities; she likes to challenge teammates to doughnut-eating and water-drinking contests and recently wrote a thank-you poem to her scholarship sponsor that was "so funny [and full of inside jokes] we couldn't send it," says VanDerveer. Now she has become a key cog. Ruef delivers the ball to the hot hand—"I'd much rather make the awesome pass that leads to the cool shot than take the shot," she says—grabs rebounds (her 6.6 average was second on the team), takes charges, sets screens and, with some reluctance, deploys her high-post jumper. "Things have not always gone Mikaela's way," says VanDerveer. "As a freshman, she was at the far end of the bench. Last year she was injured. A lot of kids would have given up or transferred. She has really demonstrated resiliency."
A less talented team than the ones that went to the last five Final Fours, the Cardinal surely wouldn't be a lock for a fourth straight No. 1 seed without Ruef. In three games in the Pac-12 tournament, she averaged 9.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists, and she hit the shot heard 'round Seattle's KeyArena: After she made a well-defended turnaround fadeaway jumper that broke a 47--all tie with UCLA with less than a minute to go in the title game, Ruef unleashed her signature primal scream, Yeeesssss! "It's like she has just made this big kill for her tribe," says VanDerveer. "It energizes the whole team."
And it no doubt rattles—or at least baffles—opponents, another way Ruef adds value to the Cardinal cause.
As a senior at East Poinsett High in Lepanto, Ark., Jordan Madden scored 45 of the Warriors' 51 points in the 2009 state 3A title game. But when she came to Baylor as part of the same freshman class as Griner, she gave up any dreams of high-scoring glory. In fact, she gave up offense. "Coach [Kim] Mulkey said if I could defend, she'd have a place for me on the floor," says the 6-foot senior guard, who admits she was "terrible" on that side of the ball when she got to Waco. After a freshman year spent chasing star guard Melissa Jones in practice, Madden became the Lady Bears' stopper, her sole duty making life miserable for the opponent's most dangerous perimeter threat. The keys to her disruptive powers? She is relentless about sticking close to shooters coming off screens and alters their attempts with her speed and her 75-inch wingspan. "She makes players take the extra dribble or get rid of the ball a half-second quicker than they want to," says associate head coach Bill Brock. "She does all the little intangible things defensively that do not show up in the box score."
Outsiders may not appreciate Madden's work—she can't remember if anyone has written about her before—but Mulkey does. "Jordan's freshman year, she was one of the worst defenders we had," says Mulkey. "Against Missouri, she and [guard Kimetria] Hayden were just abused. We kept after it, and now I'm very comfortable with Jordan. I want her guarding the top players all the time."
Madden's focus on defense did have a downside: Her neglected shot developed rust, allowing opponents to double on Griner. Last season Madden shot 35.3% from the field and 20.3% from beyond the arc, for 4.3 points a game. This year she put in extra time with Brock after practice, drilling on layups, midrange jumpers and three-point shots. Her field goal shooting rose to 52.7%, and she made 40.0% long range, tied for best on the team. (She averaged 7.6 points to go with 3.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.3 steals.) "Now players won't sag off of her and just sit in my lap," says Griner. "That opens things up for me."
Despite her rediscovered offense, Madden's identity remains wrapped up in defense. She has even found that her talent has applications beyond the court: On a visit to the Six Flags amusement park in Dallas a few days after the Lady Bears won the Big 12 tournament, Griner was mobbed by autograph seekers—until Madden stepped in and gently cut them off. And so her role expands again. "She makes a really good bodyguard," Griner says.
According to Connecticut coach and renowned nitpicker Geno Auriemma, 5'11" senior guard Kelly Faris has one critical flaw: She is so understated and judicious in her comments that she gives him little material to razz her about. "And," he says, "she very rarely does dumb things."
She does, however, do a lot of valuable things. In addition to delivering 10.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists a game, Faris guards the opponent's best player, tips rebounds, deflects passes, winds up at the bottom of every loose-ball pile and generally plays, says Auriemma, "like a jayvee player trying to make varsity."
Adds assistant Shea Ralph, "Honestly, there were games this year when I felt like Kelly won the game by herself." Case in point: In a 63--48 victory over Maryland in December, Faris had eight points, eight steals, seven rebounds and seven assists, all while holding the Terps' best player, 6'2" All-America Alyssa Thomas, to six points, 12 below her average.
Faris, who cops to being a bit of a masochist—"I'm one of those people, if I don't have homework, I'm going to figure out a way to have homework," she says—has a particular love for playing hard-nosed defense, since that's what got her on the floor as a freshman, when the team revolved around future players of the year Tina Charles and Maya Moore. "We had an unbelievably talented team that didn't need much," says Faris, who won four straight Indiana Class 2A titles with Plainfield's Heritage Christian High. "I was going to be whatever they needed me to be and do it the best I possibly could."
This year Faris has added a reliable jump shot, improving her field goal percentage to 52.7% from 43.8% and her three-point rate to 39.6% from 31.5%. "For three years other teams thought, When we play Connecticut, let's not guard Kelly Faris," says Auriemma. "All of a sudden this year it's, Damn, who is going to guard Kelly Faris?" Although she was named Big East defensive player of the year as well as co--most improved, she didn't get the all-conference nod her coach thought she deserved. Not that he's surprised. "Kids like Kelly are underappreciated because they aren't spectacular at anything," Auriemma says. "But what matters to us is that she's really, really good at a lot of things."
THE CRUISE DIRECTOR
Before the season, Notre Dame players and staff took a test that identified personality types with different colors. The only player to get the "gold" designation—indicating a craving for organization and structure—was Achonwa. Says coach Muffet McGraw, a fellow gold, "She's the kind of kid who kept a calendar even when we were recruiting her. Now she'll say, 'In September [I'll be traveling with] the Canadian team and I might have to miss a week of class.' She's just on top of things."
The tidiness of Achonwa's locker would make Felix Unger weep—"I think her shirts are organized by color," says junior forward Ariel Braker—and her time-management skills are so honed that in between basketball and her business studies Achonwa has squeezed in a teaching assistantship in a class on innovation. She also has the mental space to keep track of how to counter an upcoming opponent's defensive strategy and where teammates are supposed to be on the floor during certain sets. "She is the one person I always hear talking on the court, making sure we know there's a screen," says Braker.
Achonwa does a few quantifiable things, too. Although she is undersized for a post player (at 6'3" she is the tallest on the Irish roster), her 9.3 rebounds ranked second in the conference, and her 2.4 assists and 13.8 points were second and third on the team, respectively. "She's a great face-up player and a really good passer, and that's important in our offense, because the center is like a point guard," says McGraw.
A native of Guelph, Ont., Achonwa developed her versatility during the two years she spent at Canada's now defunct National Elite Development Academy outside Toronto. "In our system, everyone was a guard, no matter how tall you were," she says. "Everyone cut, everyone screened, everyone passed." Early in her career at Notre Dame, Achonwa sat on the bench and noted the contributions of frontline players such as Becca Bruszewski and Devereaux Peters. "I incorporated the grit and physicality of Becca and Devereaux's athleticism, agility and quick thinking," she says.
With her confidence boosted by a summer spent as the youngest member of the Canadian Olympic team, Achonwa joined the Irish's starting lineup last fall and then roughly doubled her rebounding and scoring averages from last season. "She made a huge jump," says McGraw. "She's more assertive and really playing a big role for us."
Along the way Achonwa has developed a fluid on-court connection with Diggins. "They have an innate sense of what the other one is going to do," says McGraw. The most recent example: With the Big East tournament championship game tied at 59 with 12 seconds to go, Diggins stole a UConn pass, dribbled through traffic and found Achonwa alone under the basket for the winning layup and Notre Dame's first Big East tournament title. For Achonwa, finding a void and filling it paid off, again.
FARIS TIPS REBOUNDS, DEFLECTS PASSES AND PLAYS, SAYS AURIEMMA, "LIKE A JAYVEE PLAYER TRYING TO MAKE THE VARSITY."
Who will advance to New Orleans? For bracket analysis from SI's experts and to follow the latest developments in the women's NCAA tournament, go to SI.com/mag.
Photograph by MATT CASHORE/USA TODAY SPORTS
NATALIE ACHONWA Forward, Notre Dame The first international player to suit up for the Irish, the 6'3" junior from Canada tied a school record with 16 double doubles this season.
MIKAELA RUEF Forward, Stanford Already having a career year, the 6'3" Ruef increased her scoring (2.7 to 7.5), rebounding (6.0 to 8.0) and assist (1.7 to 3.6) averages over the last 10 games.
KEVIN JAIRAJ/US PRESSWIRE
JORDAN MADDEN Guard, Baylor The defensive specialist avoided fouling this year, committing just 1.6 per game in 26.2 minutes.
KELLY FARIS Guard, Connecticut In the illustrious history of the Huskies, the steady senior ranks third with 109 consecutive starts.