Leadership skills are usually developed over several years — but Notre Dame’s Taya Reimer didn’t have that kind of time.
At the beginning of the season, Reimer, just a sophomore, was looked upon by coaches and players to be the Irish’s leader in the post.
All-America Natalie Achonwa’s playing career was over and Notre Dame had some promising talent at the position as Brianna Turner and Kathryn Westbeld joined the team, but with it was up to Reimer to groom them for another run to the Women’s Final Four.
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“I was kind of forced to grow up, and I think that I really tried to embrace that role,” Reimer said. “Even though I’m still really young, just being able to use those experiences and help them out. It’s just something that I’ve had to do for the betterment of the team. And I’m just happy that I can help them out any way that I can.”
She had been in the spot before.
Last season, Reimer was a key reserve for the Irish who was contributing on a regular basis. And then Achonwa went down with a season-ending injury against Baylor in the Elite Eight. Reimer was thrust into a starting role while the biggest possible spotlight shining down on her — and she held her own.
Reimer contributed nine points, five rebounds and four assists in the 2014 NCAA semifinal victory against Maryland. In the championship game against Connecticut, she tallied six points, four rebounds and a game-high three blocks.
As a sophomore, she is averaging 10.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. Over the last 11 contests, she has contributed 11.7 ppg while shooting 59.2 percent from the field. But perhaps her most important contribution is the mentorship she’s provided for freshmen Turner and Westbeld.
“She’s become a mentor to the post,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “She’s only a sophomore and we’re expecting so much from her. And she just continues to deliver. She’s been our steadiest player all year long, and I think it’s because of her that our whole post game has really improved.”
In NCAA postseason, Reimer has been even better, scoring 11.6 ppg and leading all starters with a 60.5 field goal percentage. Against South Carolina in the semifinals, she collected 16 points and six rebounds and went 7-for-10 from the field.
Reimer’s maturation had to be quick, but she has had the luxury of leaning on Achonwa, who is now on Notre Dame’s women’s basketball staff.
“Ace is on our staff, so I think being around her on a daily basis — she’s constantly helping us and telling us things specifically for the posts,” Reimer said. “She had so much success in this program and did so much. That definitely helps a lot.”
And the vast experience she gained as a freshman hasn’t hurt.
“I think having the experience that I did last season, playing in the Final Four and having to contribute as a freshman, I think that I learned a lot from that,” Reimer said.
There were a few bumps along the way — including a short hiatus in January for personal reasons — but once Reimer started believing in herself, everything started falling into place.
“It’s something that I struggled with at the beginning of the season,” Reimer said. “Coach wanted me to be more vocal on the court and more vocal with Bri [Turner] and Kathryn [Westbeld], just helping them out with where they should be and talking to them more about things that they should be doing. I think kind of around January, that’s when it clicked for me. I think with more confidence that I gained in myself in the way I was playing; it kind of helped me to be able to direct them more.”
Turner, the ACC Freshman of the Year, might lead the Irish with 7.8 rebounds per game and top the nation with a 64.8 field goal percentage, but she still looks to Reimer in lots of ways.
“Taya’s been a great mentor on and off the court,” Turner said. “I think that’s why we play so well together is our relationship off the court — we’re like best friends. Even against South Carolina, there was a point in the game when I said to Taya, ‘what do I do?’ And she got me in the right spot. She always helps me out.”
Reimer is delighted with how Turner and Westbeld have developed over the season.
“I think that with us being so young and especially with Bri and Kathryn being freshmen, it’s hard to transition into the college game,” Reimer said. “I think that we’ve just all learned to play together so well. The coaches have pushed us so hard and have done a great job with giving us those opportunities to grow. It’s just been constant work. I am just really proud of the way that, especially with those two being freshmen, how they’ve progressed. They’re peaking at the perfect time.”
It certainly is the perfect time, because the Irish have a huge challenge ahead against Connecticut on Tuesday night, especially in the post as they match up with Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck.
“Whatever it comes down to, we’ll be ready for it,” Reimer said. “This team has so much versatility and so many people that can step up in big situations. I think we proved that, especially with last night’s game. We’re just going to be ready for it.”