OMAHA, Neb. – Surrounded by star players, Notre Dame reserve forward Natalie Achonwa figures she’ll have a path to the basket most times she gets the ball.
That’s the way it worked out for the 6-foot-3 sophomore on Sunday, when she scored a career-high 20 points in the third-ranked Irish’s 76-48 victory over Creighton.
Natalie Novosel had 17 points and Devereaux Peters added 10 for Notre Dame (7-1), which rested guard Skylar Diggins most of the second half after leading by 30 points at the break.
“We have such great perimeter players that it opens up the middle, opens up the high post,” Achonwa said. “With players like Natalie and Skylar and even Dev being such a presence, they have to guard them. So as soon as I touch the ball, it’s almost like a golden light telling me to go to the basket. It’s really easy.”
Notre Dame got out to leads of 12-0, 30-3 and 41-11 at halftime. The 11 points were the fewest allowed by the Irish in a half since Southeast Missouri State had six last January.
The Irish forced turnovers on seven of Creighton’s first nine possessions, and the Bluejays didn’t make a field goal until Sarah Nelson’s left-handed bank-in with 11:36 left in the half.
It was the kind of start Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw wanted to see after a rather lethargic performance in a 31-point win over Penn on Friday.
“We talked about energy. We had a lot of good positive energy today,” McGraw said. “We were into the game more. I think we were really flat the other night and we needed to make up for it.”
Achonwa made up for some lost time at the start of the season. She was playing in her fifth gamme since coming back from preseason surgery on her right knee.
She had scored a total of 15 points in her first four games and made just 7 of 19 shots. But she found her touch against the Bluejays, making 8 of 11 shots.
“I was most impressed with her scoring around the basket,” McGraw said. “Her and Dev play so well together.”
Achonwa’s return also takes pressure off Notre Dame’s 3-point shooters. The Irish came in shooting 28.9 percent from long range and made only 1 of 7 against Creighton.
“It gives us a huge lift,” McGraw said. “We’ve struggled from the 3-point line, so it was good to look inside and score some points without making any 3s.”
Achonwa, who averaged 6.9 points and 5.3 rebounds in 39 games off the bench as a freshman, said she can build off her performance Sunday.
“I think I’m just trying to find my rhythm again,” she said.
Novosel said she and her teammates expected Achonwa to be a valuable player for the Irish this season.
“She’s come in full throttle,” Novosel said. “She’s very versatile, very hard to guard – a great attribute for us.”
Ally Jensen made 3 of 4 3-pointers and finished with 12 points to lead Creighton (4-3).
The Bluejays, picked to finish fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference, were unaccustomed to the speed and ferocity with which the 2011 national runner-up plays.
Creighton’s 25 turnovers led to 32 points for the Irish.
“There’s part of me that’s embarrassed,” Creighton coach Jim Flanery said. “It looked like we didn’t pratice to get ready for their pressure and for what they were going to do offensively. Obviously, I need to do a beter job of getting our kids ready.”
Notre Dame outworked and outmuscled the Bluejays inside and shot 55 percent.
Peters had nine rebounds to go with her 10 points, and the Irish held a 32-28 advantage on the boards.
Creighton shot just 15 percent (3 of 20) in the first half but improved after halftime and finished at 37.2 percent.
Notre Dame is outscoring the opposition by an average of 27 points a game.
It was the second year in a row the teams met. The Irish won 91-54 at home last season.
“The initial start of the game, that’s what hurt them the most,” Novosel said. “We’ve been trying to have better starts.”