TORONTO - Natalie Achonwa hasn't worn Canada's basketball jersey since last summer's Olympics, but she hasn't had any trouble keeping tabs on her national teammates.
It's a task made easy by the fact Canadian women are doing well south of the border.
Achonwa is a starting forward for No. 2-ranked Notre Dame, which claimed the Big East regular-season title Monday night with a 96-87 victory over No. 3-ranked Connecticut that went to triple overtime. The 20-year-old from Guelph, Ont., is also one of some 80 Canadians who are honing their games on women's NCAA teams.
"It's neat definitely when you get to play against somebody that you know, as well from time to time we spot each other on film when we're scouting other teams," Achonwa said in a recent interview from South Bend, Ind. "It's great to be able to be proud for your fellow Canadians within the NCAA."
The six-foot-three forward, affectionately known as "Ace," is Notre Dame's first international player in its 36-year history, and a big reason why the Irish has won 23 straight games. They've matched the school record set by the NCAA championship team in 2000-01 and will head to Hartford next week in search of their first Big East tournament title.
Achonwa, a junior, was promoted to the starting lineup this season after spending her first two as the first player off the bench.
"Just to see her blossom like this has been really neat," said longtime Canadian women's coach Allison McNeill, who retired from that position after the Olympics. "She does a lot of things that if you're not aware, you don't notice. She's outstanding defensively, in terms of her help side and understanding the game. I liken her to someone like Teresa (Gabriele) or Kim Smith, in terms of her basketball IQ."
Achonwa, who stepped into the starting lineup seamlessly this season after the graduation of Devereaux Peters, is averaging 13.9 points and 9.2 rebounds (second in the Big East). She recorded a Big East-leading 15th double-double two games ago versus Syracuse.
Canadian teammate Kayla Alexander, a senior for the Orange and a native of Milton, Ont., drained 24 points and hauled down 16 rebounds in that game.
Canadian men regularly make basketball headlines down south. High school phenom Andrew Wiggins has been referred to as "Canada's Michael Jordan," and is expected to go No. 1 overall in the 2014 NBA draft. Anthony Bennett, a forward at UNLV and a native of Brampton, Ont., is considered a potential top-five NBA draft pick this year. Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos anchor a Gonzaga team that is ranked No. 1 in the NCAA.
But the women are more than holding their own down south. Nine Canadians played in the women's March Madness last year, and there should be several this season.
"There's a lot of Canadian talent mixed in with Division 1 schools, I just don't think it's always pointed out," Achonwa said.
Michelle Plouffe of Edmonton is one of Utah's top scorers, while her sister Katherine regularly leads Marquette in scoring and rebounding. Wumi Agunbiade, a junior at Duquesne, leads the Dukes in scoring and rebounding. Nirra Fields is a rookie at UCLA, but has topped the Bruins in scoring several times this season.
"Some of these young players, I have to admit, I'm kind of sad I don't get to coach them. There's some good ones," McNeill said.
Emma Wolfram of Kamloops, B.C., who has committed to Gonzaga next fall, led Canada to a bronze medal at last summer's under-17 world championships.
"She's going to be very good, she's really bright, she was a force on the junior team last year," McNeill said.
Achonwa came up through the National Elite Development Academy, which brought the top high school players together to live and train in Hamilton before the program was scrapped in 2009 due to funding cuts. Ten of the 11 players from Achonwa's NEDA team, she said, went on to play at NCAA Div. 1 schools.
Achonwa, who had 17 points and eight boards versus Connecticut on Monday, credits last summer's Olympics with the growth she's shown this season. She was one of the youngest players on a team that was ousted in the quarter-finals by the eventual Olympic champion United States.
"I think I've been a lot more aggressive this year, and a lot more confident," Achonwa said. "I think that's come from to both accepting role and my learning period through the Olympics and also the trust that my teammates and my coaches have in me."