Reimer ready to step in for Irish

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In the minutes after Notre Dame beat Baylor on Monday to claim a spot in its fourth consecutive Final Four, Taya Reimer sat undisturbed in the lounge near the Irish locker room in South Bend. It's an area where select players are corralled for interviews, and an official told the freshman she needed to wait there.

Yet in the afterglow of a win in which Jewell Loyd starred and Kayla McBride persevered, and amid the uncertainty of what was then still an undiagnosed knee injury for Natalie Achonwa, Reimer sat alone along a wall. There was an awkwardness in her pose, hands folded in her lap as people with cameras and notebooks hurriedly passed without stopping to ask anything of the player who totaled four points and four rebounds in 20 minutes.

Finally, another team official spared her, and she gladly slipped almost unnoticed into the locker room.

That might be the last time Reimer is anything like an afterthought during her time in South Bend. It is certainly the last time this season she will be. A team that time and again this season emphatically answered the questions of how it would fare without Skylar Diggins enters the Final Four facing questions of how it will fare without Achonwa, who suffered a torn ACL in the closing minutes against Baylor.

We don't know the answer to this latest question yet, but Reimer is part of it beyond what the 18.7 minutes and 7.4 points she has averaged to this point might suggest.

"I think Taya has had a very good year," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "I think that she would be a starter for most other programs in the country, and she was able to come off the bench and learn a lot through Natalie Achonwa and Ariel Braker and she is ready for this opportunity. I think she's been waiting for this opportunity all season long to break into the starting lineup, and she certainly is talented enough and has a great skill set."

Notre Dame doesn't need Reimer to be perfect. The freshman doesn't need to be Achonwa, although in terms of what is asked of a post player in McGraw's Princeton offense, those two things might be nearly one and the same. But if the Fighting Irish are to win Sunday's semifinal against No. 4 seed Maryland (ESPN and WatchESPN, 6:30 p.m. ET), they do need her to be ready.

Wherever Achonwa fits among a landscape of elite post players nationwide that includes Connecticut's Stefanie Dolson, Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike, Duke's Elizabeth Williams and a handful of others, it's difficult to make a case any contributed in more facets of the game than she did for Notre Dame -- right down to delivering her memorably passionate instructions to her teammates before she headed to the locker room with the knee injury. Achonwa tallied 19 points and 15 rebounds Monday and was a decisive defensive presence. Losing that is a blow. Losing that days before a national semifinal is unprecedented.

Among the few cases even in the same neighborhood is Connecticut, which once lost Shea Ralph in the Big East championship game. Huskies coach Geno Auriemma also knows Achonwa well.

"The problem when you have a great team and you lose somebody as integral as she is to their team, and you lose them late in the year, it's hard to just put somebody in and expect the same results," Auriemma said this week. "She was a terrific passer. She could score around the basket. She played great defense inside. She rebounded the ball. She had a little bit of an edge to her, which I think every big guy needs."

To a woman, the mantra coming out of the Notre Dame camp Saturday in Nashville was that this is not a swap. It isn't Reimer for Achonwa any more than it was freshman point guard Lindsay Allen for Diggins when the season began. It is every player who gets on the court, and probably even those who don't, doing something to make up for what was lost when Achonwa went down. That might be Loyd and McBride, both already outstanding rebounders, devoting even more energy to the boards against a Maryland team that ranks among the best in the nation. It might be Michaela Mabrey, Madison Cable or Markisha Wright being more aggressive on the offensive end.

Still, sharing the burden goes only so far. Notre Dame isn't going to change how it plays basketball, and much of how it plays on the offensive end runs through the player who occupies the high post.

That was Achonwa, who had 269 career assists. It's now Reimer.

"The Princeton offense, it's really just based on reads," Reimer said. "There's not one set thing you're looking for. It's what cut is open, or who is open off the screens, anything. You just have to be smart and make the right reads. I love the Princeton offense just because I love working from the high post. That's definitely one of the reasons I came to Notre Dame, just because I like that style of play."

There are a couple of numbers that jump out from Reimer's statistical profile as a freshman. One is that she leads the team in fouls despite playing the sixth-most minutes. Against a Maryland front line that features Alyssa Thomas attacking the basket but also has big bodies such as Alicia DeVaughn and Brionna Jones, that could be trouble. But the other notable digits are Reimer's 56 assists. That's more than North Carolina's Allisha Gray and almost as many as Michigan State's Aerial Powers, both special freshmen who played more minutes than Reimer and might intuitively seem more likely playmakers. Notre Dame wanted Reimer because she was a high school All-American with good size and no end of talent but also because, to borrow a phrase from Liam Neeson, she had a particular skill set.

"She's very similar to Natalie in that she can put the ball on the floor, she can pass and she can shoot," McGraw said. "I think we kind of recruit kids that can do that when we see them. We feel like she is somebody that can play well in that system. We don't have a lot of back-to-the-basket players. We like the high post player who can do a lot of things from there. We do a lot of breakdown work to improve our passing. A lot of it is decision-making, and that's even more important, I think, than actually making the passes, the ability to read when it's there and when it's not."

Making those reads as a starter -- not in one of the four November games Reimer started when Achonwa was hurt but in the Final Four -- is the challenge. Associate head coach Carol Owens, the team's post guru, said her message all week has been for Reimer to focus on the little things that are easily controllable -- intensity on every possession, defense, rebounding. But hers is not a small role in the offense if it is running at full steam.

"The way the offense is, you take some risks," Owen said. "So she might have a couple of turnovers trying to hit Jewell or hit K-Mac or trying to take someone off the dribble and pass. But that's the freedom in the offense, freedom of movement."

Reimer didn't lack for company Saturday, her locker surrounded by a steady flow of people with questions during the 30 minutes media were allowed in. She appeared to take all the attention in stride, the grins that frequently escaped in stark contrast to the poker face and politely businesslike demeanor Achonwa maintains in almost any public setting. A McDonald's All-American from Indiana, a state that cares about high school basketball, Reimer is not unfamiliar with the spotlight, even if not one as bright as what will shine on her Sunday night. It came sooner than expected, but her turn was always going to come.

She doesn't need to win the game for Notre Dame, but it's going to be difficult for the Fighting Irish to win it without her.

"At the end of the day, Taya needs to be Taya Reimer," said Achonwa, who said Saturday that surgery to repair her torn ACL has not yet been scheduled. "She needs to play her game, and she needs to do what she can do. I've seen it all year in practice. I saw it even before she came here. Coach McGraw recruited her because she's a great athlete, a great player, and she's smart. She just needs to go out and be Taya Reimer."

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