- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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DENVER -- Skylar Diggins walked onto the South Bend campus two years ago, essentially shook hands with her new teammates and said, "Hi, I'm Skylar, let's get on the court and do this."
"I'm kind of bossy," she says. (Teammate Brittany Mallory confirms this, saying with a laugh, "She was not shy.")
This is Diggins' role for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish; she is the bossy, dynamic, take-charge leader.
There is no shortage of stars at this 2012 NCAA Women's Final Four; and with Diggins' 170,000 Twitter followers and her charming personality, she's one of them. But the thing with Diggins is, none of that really matters this weekend. She has made plenty of big plays in her career, leading last season's Irish all the way to the NCAA title game only to lose against Texas A&M (a game neither Mallory nor Diggins have watched in full since).
But Diggins has yet to make the biggest play. And she's betting that her dynamic game -- combined with a born-and-bred belief that any team she's playing for can beat any team she's playing against -- will lead the Irish to their season-long goal: a national championship.
The next step is Sunday's national semifinal matchup against Connecticut (ESPN, 6 p.m. ET), the eighth meeting between the teams in the past two seasons. It won't be clever game-planning that will decide the victor; it will be play-making and execution. It will be Diggins driving right, driving left, looking for room for her soft pull-up jumper or dishing to teammates who've found their open spots.
She'll continue to help her team off the court, answering the tough questions, like during Saturday's news conference when a reporter asked Mallory whether Notre Dame ever faced a fork-in-the-road moment this season.
Mallory smiled, leaned back in her chair and said, "I'm gonna pass this to Skylar."
Diggins paused, thinking, eyes turned upward, and then answered the question with conviction: "I think when we lost to West Virginia, that was the eye-opener for us the season-changer."
She'll continue to handle the ball on the court for the Irish, creating offense where it seems there isn't any. And what may matter most is how she attacks off the pick-and-roll and how well she's able to run her no-frills Notre Dame squad. So forget the stylish white adidas headband and focus on what really makes Notre Dame good: the fact that they don't waste opportunities; they don't waste movement.
For that, Notre Dame can thank Diggins.
The Irish play so much pickup together, all of it unscripted, that they have reached a place where they seem to be telepathically linked.
"Sometimes you see teams and players are standing around open, screaming and clapping and calling for the ball, but I never feel like I have to do that," Mallory said. "If I'm open, if anyone on the court is open, we have the ball before we can even think to call for it."
In the locker room Saturday, Diggins was in X's and O's mode, ankle braces on, sneakers tied, describing what she sees as she attacks off a pick-and-roll. The Notre Dame junior, the 2012 winner of the Nancy Lieberman Award honoring the nation's best point guard, gets plenty of credit for her court vision. But sometimes that praise is limited to north-south vision -- how well she charges the Irish downcourt after a steal or rebound. But to Diggins, it's her peripheral vision -- when she and her teammates are locked into their half-court sets -- that truly fuels Notre Dame.
She made a fist with her right hand and simulated driving off a screen. She flicked her eyes left and right, and then described what she sees -- and also what she inherently knows -- when she's in that small space with defenders all around. She knows that backcourt mate Natalie Novosel will be spreading the court, sliding to the open space on the perimeter. She can see her screener, either forward Devereaux Peters or Natalie Achonwa, rolling toward the hoop in that sliver of opening down the lane. And she can see Mallory and sophomore Kayla McBride either pulling behind her or stretching their own defenders out to the far corner.
The point guard is often leader by default, but Diggins is leader by choice. All season she has walked onto the practice floor with her squad, looked at the other team they're going to scrimmage and talked a little trash.
"I'm gonna beat y'all today," she'll say.
And when game time comes, and if Notre Dame is faced with an opponent that is either bigger or more talented or more something, Diggins leans back and thinks, "What do we have to do to get this done?"
Sometimes, it's just knowing the challenge, addressing the shortcoming before the other team can exploit it. That's what the Irish did in the regional final, recognizing Maryland's superiority on the glass, puffing out their chests, raising to their tiptoes and beating the Terps at their own game.
"Against Maryland, it was rebounding," Diggins said.
Against UConn, it'll be 50-50 balls, the hustle plays, an area in which Notre Dame usually excels. "We won't be intimidated," Diggins said.
And the look on her face makes you believe her.