TORONTO - If there were any concerns about Natalie Achonwa being back at full strength for the Pan American Games and Olympic qualifying, the 22-year-old has answered them with her excellent WNBA debut.
The six-foot-four centre from Guelph, Ont., was named to Canada's Pan Am Games women's basketball roster Monday a little over a year after a torn ACL ended her superb NCAA career.
"Nat, she's such a competitor, and what you see in practice one day can be completely different as soon as the lights come on and the ball gets tossed up, and it's game-time, because she is just such an intelligent player," said head coach Lisa Thomaidis.
Achonwa will be joined by NCAA champion Kia Nurse, plus Miranda Ayim of London, Ont., Nirra Fields of Lachine, Que., Kim Gaucher of Mission, B.C., Miah-Marie Langlois of Windsor, Ont., Lizanne Murphy of Beaconsfield, Que., Katherine and Michelle Plouffe of Edmonton, Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe of Toronto, Tamara Tatham of Brampton, Ont., and Shona Thorburn of Hamilton on the 12-man roster.
Achonwa helped Notre Dame to last year's Final Four before suffering a torn ACL in what turned out to be her last game for the Fighting Irish. She was sidelined for the world championships last summer, where the Canadians finished fifth — their best result in almost 30 years.
She attended a national team camp last month, where Thomaidis said Achonwa's improvement even over a few days was noticeable. She's since been averaging 10.6 points and 4.5 rebounds a game with the Indiana Fever, the team that selected her ninth overall in the WNBA draft.
"She was a bit rusty (at camp) because that was the first touch of a ball and step on a court in a five-on-five situation in basically over a year, so we knew she was going to keep getting better and better," Thomaidis said. "She's certainly shown that with her play with Indiana; she's having a fantastic season and that's really not too surprising.
"We knew she was going to get to this point, it was just a matter of when. When we had her in May just for those few days, she just has such a great presence, her basketball IQ and just her experience and her presence, she brings a lot to the table, so really pumped to have her back."
Nurse, a 19-year-old from Hamilton, helped the Connecticut Huskies to an NCAA title in March.
The Pan Am women's basketball will run July 16-20, in what's expected to be a full house at Ryerson Athletic Centre. With Olympic qualifying scheduled for August in Edmonton, Thomaidis said Pan Ams represent a great chance to get accustomed to a home crowd. Canada hasn't played a meaningful game on home soil since Hamilton hosted the 1995 Olympic qualifying tournament.
Thomaidis compared the scenario to what Canada's women's soccer team is facing playing in the World Cup at home.
"There's great things about playing at home, there's also a lot of pressures, and I think for this team, it's something we haven't had the luxury of being able to compete at home in the recent past," Thomaidis said. "So to be able to do this at Pan Ams, and really get used to what it's like to play on homecourt and have a home crowd behind you leading up to the qualifier will be great in terms of our preparation."
Seven members of the Pan Am Games squad — Achonwa, Ayim, Gaucher, Murphy, Michelle Plouffe, Tatham and Thorburn — played for Canada at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Shay Colley of Brampton, Saicha Grant-Allen of Hamilton, and Jamie Weisner of Clarkston, Wash., are the three alternates for Pan Ams.
Thomaidis leads a coaching that staff that includes assistants Shawnee Harle, Bev Smith and Steve Baur.