SOUTH BEND | The challenge for Notre Dame forward Natalie Achonwa is to find the right amount of aggressiveness.
When the balance is right, the 6-3 junior from Guelph, Ontario, can have the type of performance she had against South Florida in the Big East tournament, when she had 20 points and 20 rebounds.
When the balance is wrong, she can find herself on the bench in foul trouble, as she did when she played just 16 minutes against Tennessee in January and 14 minutes against Connecticut in the Big East title game, or playing too timidly, as she did in the first half against Kansas last week after being called for a foul three minutes into the game.
"I think there's a balance between not making a silly foul early and having me yell at her for not playing better defense," coach Muffet McGraw said Thursday. "She's got to find that balance. Maybe early on you're not going to be quite as aggressive. You want to be aggressive offensively, but maybe defensively play a little smarter."
Achonwa said it boils down to mental preparation and understanding how closely officials are calling a game.
"Sometimes they let you play a little bit more and sometimes they're calling it tighter. So it's focusing on what you can do in the limits of how the game is being reffed," she said.
She will be trying to find the right amount of aggressiveness when Notre Dame (35-1) faces UConn (33-4) in New Orleans on Sunday for a trip to the national championship game. The Irish will be seeking to beat the Huskies for a fourth time this season on a big stage, but that's nothing new for Achonwa.
Achonwa, the first international player to play for the Irish, has been to two straight NCAA title games and played for Canada in the Olympics last summer, where she was the second-youngest women's basketball player. She also played for Canada in the 2010 World Championships at age 16.
"She's got great inner strength. She's a really strong person. She's very calm. She doesn't let things rattle her," longtime Canadian national coach Allison McNeill said.
She was primarily a role player for Notre Dame the past two seasons, averaging 7.6 points and 4.4 rebounds as a sophomore playing behind Devereaux Peters. She's flourished as a starter, averaging 13.9 points and 9.6 rebounds a game. She has a school-record 19 double-doubles.
The biggest difference McNeill sees in Achonwa is her confidence.
"Being able to compete and play against those best players in the Olympics, she was like, 'I can do that.' She's a confident kid anyway. But when you have that experience, I think that can put you over the top," she said.
Achonwa was identified as a player with potential when she was just 12 years old, being selected by Canada Basketball to take part in a program called Centers for Performance, which brought the best players from a province together to train. She later was part of the National Elite Development Academy, where she trained with some of the nation's best young players, including Syracuse's Kayla Alexander and Utah's Michelle Plouffe.
"Natalie really gained from competing every night," said Christine Stapleton, who coached them there. "Those girls were battling it out in practice every day for two years. Then she gets Devereaux Peters for two years. So there's no surprise that Natalie has developed into the player and young woman that she is."
Achonwa said it's hard to quantify how much playing in the Olympics helped her this season, saying it helped in every part of her game and it's continued throughout the season.
"Playing against players like (Baylor's) Brittney Griner, (UConn's) Stefanie Dolson and some of the best posts in the country has been a challenge but I think I've grown with it," Achonwa said.
Achonwa knows how fortunate she has been to have had so many great experiences at a young age. She has a tattoo on her right wrist that reads: "Blessed."
"It's just a reminder to enjoy every moment and embrace every moment because you are blessed to have them, and to make sure you are taking full advantage of every day," she said.
Achonwa hopes she and her teammates can take advantage of the opportunity in front of them and win Notre Dame's first national championship since 2001.