Commentary

Indianapolis calls to Skylar Diggins

ND sophomore leads Irish to 'hometown' Final Four with upset of Tennessee

Originally Published: March 28, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

DAYTON, Ohio -- A lot of things are said in the recruiting process that never have the slightest chance of happening. If it means the difference in securing the services of a special player, a coaching staff will gladly promise a recruit the moon -- as well as those that orbit Mars and Jupiter.

So when Notre Dame was trying to convince local high school legend Skylar Diggins to stay in South Bend, Ind., and spurn the advances of Connecticut, Stanford, Tennessee and any other school with a brand name even greater than that of the school down the street from her, the coaches gave Diggins a book based around a timeline of how her career might unfold with the hometown team.

[+] EnlargeSkylar Diggins
AP Photo/Skip PetersonSkylar Diggins put Notre Dame on her back Monday to take down Tennessee.

One prominent inclusion was the Final Four she could lead the Irish to as a sophomore. The one held a couple of hours to the south, in Indianapolis, the place every Indiana kid who ever shoots a jumper dreams of going to win a title.

There's a reason, after all, that "Hoosiers" isn't set in Massachusetts.

"I'll never forget that," Diggins said Monday night. "And you know, I believed it. I didn't think they were feeding me a bunch of crap. I thought they truly believed that. And when you have coaches that believe in you and your talent and your ability to do great things, it makes you believe in yourself even more. And it gives you confidence, and it gives you swagger. It's an opportunity that a lot of kids dream about, and I just had the blessing to be a part of it."

As she offered those words in a dimly lit hallway in the depths of University of Dayton Arena (coincidentally, outside the same locker room the VCU men's team occupied when it beat USC in the first round of the NCAA tournament), she was wearing one of the T-shirts that seem to appear out of thin air at the end of big postseason games.

The ones they give the teams that win regional finals. The ones they give the teams going to Indianapolis.

After Notre Dame's 73-59 win against No. 1 seed Tennessee, consider it the ultimate recruiting promise kept.

"She's a winner; she's always been a winner," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "She led her team to the state final [four] times and won it. She's used to being in that situation. She wants to be in that situation. She's fearless. She just believes, really believes. And she gets the team to believe."

Behind perhaps the best individual performance in a career already littered with candidates for that honor, particularly given the stage and opponent on this night, Notre Dame is going back to the Final Four for the first time since winning its only national championship in 2001. Diggins scored 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting to go along with four assists, four steals and just three turnovers in 36 minutes to give her program its first win in 21 tries against the Lady Vols.

She's a winner; she's always been a winner. … She's used to being in that situation. She wants to be in that situation. She's fearless. She just believes, really believes. And she gets the team to believe.

-- Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt didn't see much she liked on the court in Dayton, after the game suggesting, in what sounded like only a quarter-joking manner, that she'd like to put her team back on the court to practice that night if her athletic director and chancellor would let her. But she liked, or at least admired, what she saw out of Diggins.

"I thought that without any doubt, [she was the] best guard on the floor," Summitt said. "When she has to score, she can score. But she loves to distribute the ball. I think she energizes that team, and she was the real force. Obviously, I have a lot of respect for her because she does what she has to do. If she's got to score, like she stepped up and scored, she can do that. But there's been many games that I've seen where she definitely will get other people touches. I think they have good rhythm on offense because of how she plays."

A game that shaped up as a battle of point guards between Tennessee freshman Meighan Simmons and Diggins instead quickly became a study in contrasts. Simmons picked up two early fouls, and finally seemed the victim of her own speed and inexperience when she got on the court for an extended run in the second half; she rushed shot after shot on her way to a 1-of-11 line. And whether she was on the court or not, hers was the blueprint for a team that looked disjointed, unsure and, in the case of a second-half taunting technical foul on Kelley Cain, ill-composed.

Notre Dame never reached those depths, but it, too, suffered its share of sloppiness in a first half that saw the teams combine for 21 field goals and 21 turnovers. However, behind Diggins, who totaled 15 points and three assists in the second half, it gradually began to build a lead, ebbing and flowing to within a couple of baskets at times, but always there. There's nothing ostentatiously flashy about the sophomore's game -- as McGraw said, she's not as quick as Simmons or Oklahoma's Danielle Robinson, the two elite guards Diggins helped render inconsequential in Datyon. But she is always in the middle of plays, almost casually spotting up for a 3-pointer when no defender challenged her, taking a return pass after inbounding a ball and draining a short jumper against a team slow to react, or twice reaching around Kamiko Williams to poke the ball away at just the point her opponent thought she had a free path to the basket.

[+] EnlargeMuffet McGraw
Greg Bartram/US PresswirePart of Muffet McGraw's recruiting pitch to Diggins was playing for a championship in Indy.

"She's crafty," McGraw said. "She's smart. She knows how to take it in; she knows how to use her body. She's strong. It's great that you have to guard her on the perimeter because [you] never know if she's going to make a 3 -- you know it's going to be a dagger [if she does]. And she can hit the pull-up jumper. She really has a complete offensive game."

There is something decidedly old-school about Diggins' game, even as it comes attached to a confident, charismatic, outgoing character made for the modern media world. She is comfortable meeting the demands of stardom, but she does it with a game built around decidedly anachronistic passions -- getting to the free throw line by driving to the basket like a running back hitting the hole or pulling up for a jumper in the vast wasteland that is the so-called midrange.

"I learned that in my transition from high school to college, the importance of the midrange game, how it's kind of a lost art," Diggins said. "A lot of people can go to the basket, a lot of people can shoot 3s -- a lot of women. So if you have a midrange game, that just opens up all three. And now, since I'm kind of known for getting charges called on me, I've learned to pull up more. You have to do that because in college, it's rotation, help-side defense, and they're going to slide over -- not as much in high school, where you could go all the way."

And yet, when the time came to seal the outcome, to close the door once and for all on any Tennessee comeback, Diggins was there with a final flourish, pushing the break when the circumstance might have dictated caution, and throwing an alley-oop to Devereaux Peters that brought the fans in green to their feet and Tennessee to its knees.

"She looks for it all the time; she always wants me to dunk it or something," Peters said, laughing. "She's always looking for that, and she's like, 'I'm just going to throw it whether somebody is with you or not, so you better go get it.' We just have that connection there. She knew I was running to get it, and I thought she was going to throw a bounce pass or something, but she threw it up and I was like, 'All right, I know what I've got to do.'"

A year ago, Diggins was the highly touted freshman trying to find her footing on a senior-laden team. And while she's still a kid in some respects, ceding locker room leadership to seniors like Becca Bruszewski, she also is now the player leading Notre Dame back to the Final Four with a chance to win a national championship on scared soil for someone born in the Hoosier State.

Just like it was all laid out in the recruiting pitch.

"I still have that book, actually," Diggins said.

She can take it with her to Indianapolis.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.