For the vast majority of college basketball programs around the country, a trip to the national championship game and a 31-8 record would be cause for celebration. For the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, it's motivation to take care of unfinished business.
Six points were all that separated Notre Dame from its second national championship, but a late rally by Texas A&M in the NCAA title game left the Fighting Irish just short of their goal. Four starters and 10 monogram winners will be returning from that NCAA national runner-up team in 2011-12, combining with an incoming freshman class that has been ranked as high as ninth in the country to give Notre Dame all the pieces to make another charge towards the top of college basketball's mountain and planting their championship flag at the summit.
Leading the way for the Fighting Irish will be a trio of All-Americans in junior guard Skylar Diggins (15.0 ppg., 4.8 apg. in 2010-11), senior guard Natalie Novosel (15.1 ppg., 4.0 rpg.) and senior forward Devereaux Peters (11.9 ppg., 7.5 rpg., .593 FG%). Between them, this highly-talented threesome scored 1,638 points last season (an average of 42 points per game) while giving Notre Dame a bonafide All-America threat at each of the major court positions (point guard, wing and post).
Every championship team needs a steady, confident leader and the Fighting Irish will certainly have that, as Diggins pairs with fifth-year senior captain Brittany Mallory to give Notre Dame all the leadership it could ever want. Mallory (7.1 ppg., 2.1 spg., .402 3FG%) mixes gritty, blue-collar defense with timely offensive punch from the perimeter.
Two sophomores – forward Natalie Achonwa (6.9 ppg., 5.3 rpg., .566 FG%) and guard Kayla McBride (8.7 ppg., .557 FG%) – also will compete for a spot in the Fighting Irish starting lineup after successful rookie campaigns as Notre Dame's top reserves. Achonwa used her experience on the international stage as a member of the Canadian National Team to earn BIG EAST All-Freshman Team honors in 2010-11 after ranking second among conference rookies in field goal percentage. Meanwhile, McBride (who started four times as a freshman) is a quick and crafty wing player who will give the Fighting Irish a multi-dimensional threat on both offense and defense.
Senior guard Fraderica Miller (1.9 ppg.) and junior guard Kaila Turner (2.7 ppg.) should provide Notre Dame with added depth in the backcourt in 2011-12. Miller is one of the nation's most dangerous defensive stoppers, having led the country with 6.1 steals per 40 minutes played last year. Turner has developed a reliable three-point shot (.322 FG%) to complement her improving ball-handling and leadership skills at the point guard position, allowing her to spell Diggins as the Fighting Irish floor general.
Notre Dame's three incoming freshmen also will seek to make their mark at the college level in '11-12. Guard/wing Madison Cable (Mt. Lebanon, Pa.) was named the Gatorade High School Player of the Year in the state of Pennsylvania and a Parade Magazine All-American in her final high school season, in addition to being a three-time all-state honoree. She averaged 17.4 points per game last year while leading Mount Lebanon High School to its third consecutive Pennsylvania Class 4A state championship.
Whitney Holloway (Plainfield, Ill.) is a speedy point guard who combines exceptional court awareness with offensive punch. She averaged 14.2 points, 4.6 assists and 4.1 steals per game as a senior in 2010-11, helping Montini Catholic High School to a 36-1 record and its second consecutive Illinois Class 3A state championship. For her career, she was a three-time all-state selection, scoring 1,594 points and shooting 64 percent from the field.
Complementing her backcourt classmates will be 6-foot-2 forward Markisha Wright (Des Moines, Iowa). A tough, physical post presence who will give Notre Dame some extra muscle on the blocks, Wright was the driving force behind Des Moines East High School and its run to the 2011 Iowa Class 4A state title with a perfect 27-0 record. A three-time all-state selection, Wright averaged a double-double in her final prep season with 16.0 points and 15.0 rebounds per game.
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