Diggins puts on show for Indy crowd
INDIANAPOLIS -- Notre Dame sophomore point guard Skylar Diggins and assistant coach Niele Ivey watch a lot of video together, just about every minute the player spends on the court in a green, gold or blue uniform, in fact. Sometimes it's just the two of them, current and former Notre Dame point guards staring at the screen. Other times head coach Muffet McGraw stops in to add a voice and check in on her star pupil and, well, her star coaching pupil.
"She does watch a lot, a lot of film because she needs to see what we're talking about all the time," Ivey said of Diggins. "And she's like a sponge of it, so she likes to watch a lot of film."
But in the days before Sunday's semifinal against Big East rival Connecticut, Diggins passed on a final round of film study for an opponent already burned into her memory after three previous meetings this season.
As Ivey recalled, "She was just like, 'Yeah, I'm good, Coach. I'm good.'"
Talk about an understatement. But people will be watching the film of what followed for years to come.
Behind 28 points (on 10-of-14 shooting), 6 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals in 39 minutes from Diggins, No. 2 seed Notre Dame made sure the fourth time was the charm and beat No. 1 Connecticut 72-63 to advance to Tuesday's championship game against Texas A&M (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET). In the process, the Fighting Irish became the first team to beat Connecticut in the NCAA tournament since Maya Moore was a freshman, the first team to beat both Connecticut and Tennessee in the same NCAA tournament, and the first team to earn a chance to play for a title in its home state since Stanford in 1992.
But the story of the night was Diggins ensuring her team would get its first win in four tries this season against its rival.
"I think the last two games she definitely has shown what she can do, and what she's capable of doing," McGraw said of the regional final win against Tennessee and Sunday's win. "I think it's great that she was chosen as an All-American because I think that was a great reward for her. And she played like one tonight. She did it all. She ran the team. She scored. She made good passes, good decisions, really single-handedly kept us in the first half."
Diggins set up Notre Dame for its first lead, sliding into the lane just more than two minutes into the game, waiting that extra half a beat like great point guards do to give the defense just enough time to hang itself and dropping a pass down to a suddenly wide-open Devereaux Peters for a layup and a 4-3 advantage. For all the points that followed from her -- 14 in the first half and 14 more in the second -- it's worth remembering her night started with an assist.
What separated Diggins on Sunday night was not simply the scoring but the way she controlled the game. Moore had to wait for the ball to come to her to try to take over the game, and one of the greatest players in the history of the college game still almost managed to do just that one more time down the stretch. But Diggins literally and figuratively had the game in her hands all night. The points were critical, to be sure, but so were the times she got in the lane and dropped a ball down to Peters, Becca Bruszewski or Natalie Achonwa, creating the congestion and defensive chaos that helped lead to 19 Connecticut fouls, most notably four from Stefanie Dolson, the one true post for the Huskies.
Important, too, was the shot Diggins didn't take after tunneling her way into the paint early in the second half with her team trailing 34-29. Rather than force the issue in pursuit of a quick comeback, which would hardly have drawn criticism given how hot a hand she had in the opening half, she whipped a pass out to an open Brittany Mallory in the corner, who in turn drew a defender with a shot fake and moved the ball to Natalie Novosel, who hit a floater in the lane to cut the deficit to three points.
Playing with three fouls and marginal impact at the time, Novosel went on to score 18 second-half points, giving the Fighting Irish the second scorer that the Huskies never found. Would Novosel still have developed that hot hand if she didn't get the early look afforded by Diggins' unselfishness? Maybe. Maybe not.
The point is a championship point guard doesn't leave that sort of thing to chance.
"She's matured so much," Mallory said. "She knows when and where to make the pass, when to shoot, when to get other people open. And the last couple of minutes, she was all about time and possession."
Not that the Fighting Irish want their star passing up too many shots. One reason Diggins is able to find the passing lanes she does when she gets in the paint is there might not be a better player in the college game at scoring off the dribble inside the 3-point line. The court in Indianapolis was painted with the old-school skinny lane to celebrate the state's basketball heritage, and Diggins is the kind of guard it's easy to envision thriving in a game without a 3-point line (even if she knocked down two more from behind that line against the Huskies, giving her 10 in the tournament). She never seems to be in a hurry with the ball in her hands, probing, backing, sliding her way into midrange manna.
"She's tremendous, and she's learned so much," Ivey said. "She gets the best defender every night. Being in the Big East, playing Baylor, UCLA, Kentucky, all these top-25 teams, she's learned how to use her body and how to score. A lot of teams come in, they try and take charges on her. We work with that a lot. She's learning her body control. I feel like she always had it in high school, but she's learning now on the collegiate level where to take the shot, how to lean in, how not to go full force and get a charge."
And so a decade after Ivey totaled 21 points and five steals to lead Notre Dame to a semifinal win against Connecticut en route to the program's first and only national championship, Diggins put together one of the greatest Final Four performances of all time in front of the head coach she wanted to play for, the assistant coach she wanted to be like and the home-state crowd she wanted to play in front of as a collegian.
There was a smidgen of doubt in her mind when she elected to play for the hometown team. As it turns out, it was just the first time that Diggins made the right call with an outcome in her hands.
"Maybe a little bit," Diggins said last week after a regional final win against Tennessee of her doubts. "But now that I'm here, it wasn't at all like I thought it was going to be. It's so much better. And I feel like if I'd have went anywhere else, I would have been a fool. There is no place I'd rather be. I grew up watching this school, watching Coach McGraw, watching Coach Ivey and the championship team do great things and I wanted to be a part of it from 10 years ago."
She'll enjoy watching this tape. And yes, she and Ivey will likely sit down and go over it before the ball tips Tuesday night.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.