- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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RALEIGH, N.C. -- Skylar Diggins caught the ball at the top of the key.
She faked left, drove quickly right, put a dribble far ahead into the lane, swung the ball to her right hand, absorbed a Maryland defender, and kissed the ball off the glass. The whistle blew at about the same time Diggins turned -- face steeled -- toward her oncoming teammates. And-1. Dagger delivered. No time on the first-half clock.
Oh, wait, this was in the first half?
Yup, that's when Notre Dame leveled -- from end to end, from sideline to sideline -- the Maryland Terrapins. Even with Maryland's history of ignoring the scoreboard and clawing back into games, this one was lost in the final few minutes of the first, when instead of heading to the locker room with some much-needed momentum, the Terps went away shaking their heads -- courtesy of Diggins.
"Obviously tonight was Notre Dame's night; I thought they were spectacular," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "They really did a tremendous job on all ends of the floor. They beat us at our rebounding game and destroyed us on the glass."
The top-seeded Irish are Final Four-bound after brushing aside No. 2 seed Maryland, 80-49, in the Raleigh Regional final. Diggins' nifty end-of-half drive capped Notre Dame's 28-9 first-half run. At one point, the score was tied at 12, but by the time Diggins kissed the ball off the glass with her weaker hand, the score had ballooned to 40-21. Diggins finished with Notre Dame's first triple-double since 1990: 22 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw seemed as surprised as anyone on Maryland's bench about the blowout victory. "I thought it was going to be a close game back and fourth," she said. "I thought at the end, our leadership and experience would give us the edge. I thought we might get 10 points ahead. I did not envision this. I'm amazed at how my team came out."
The score was that lopsided because Notre Dame dominated at the things it does well: filling the entire court and finding each other in the open spots. But mostly because the Irish also dominated at the thing Maryland should have done well: rebounding -- as Frese noted. For that, Notre Dame can thank sophomore reserve forward Natalie Achonwa, who came into the game averaging 7.3 points and 4.2 rebounds. Achonwa seemed to almost match her season averages during warmups. By early in the second half, Achonwa already had 16 points and seven rebounds.
Coming into the game, Maryland's only shot at victory was glass domination. Instead, the Terps found themselves shaking their heads as the Irish, repeatedly, swept in for offensive rebounds, second chances, and points in the paint. Achonwa's interior presence was the strongest on the floor. And Diggins was the game's leading rebounder.
"They beat us at our own game tonight," said Maryland forward Alyssa Thomas, who led the Terps with 17 points. "They crashed the offensive boards hard and we weren't boxing them out. Then on the offensive end for us we didn't get a chance to pull down rebounds because they boxed us out well."
But you can point to all the numbers you want. Anyone who watched this game knows there was another important difference, but one nearly impossible to quantify. Notre Dame played like victory was the night's only outcome. The Terps seemed unsure, like maybe they just weren't capable of besting the battle-tested Irish. Of course, the latter proved true.
"I think our team just really embraces the pressure," Diggins said. "The expectations others put on us do not exceed the ones we put on ourselves. We were very loose coming into this game and remembered it was just that -- a game. We were waiting all day for the game to start and I believe we were comfortable."
As this one wound down, Diggins stripped the ball from Maryland point guard Anjale Barrett as she attacked the hoop. In one motion, Diggins collected the ball and spun upcourt, lofting a pass ahead to teammate Kayla McBride, who laid the ball in with 7:14 left in the game. As the ball dropped through the net, the score ticked up just a little bit higher, showing a 74-42 Notre Dame lead. McGraw called a timeout. Diggins, still near halfcourt, slowed to a walk and stared toward the TV broadcasters. Her look seemed to say, "Somebody doubt us; I dare you."
She didn't look away for a few seconds, letting the thought linger. The look wasn't entirely unlike the one she wore at the end of the first half, after delivering the and-1 dagger.
"We came out with a chip on our shoulder," Diggins said. "We wanted to let them know why we're a No. 1 seed -- we're a No. 1 seed for a reason, and we came out and dominated."
Notre Dame did all the things it normally does well -- and won the areas Maryland should have dominated -- to rout the Terps and return to the Final Four. Truth is, this one was practically over by halftime.