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History lesson is bittersweet for Fighting Irish, Lady Vols

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Tennessee vs. Notre Dame Postgame Breakdown (2:04)

ESPN's Doris Burke breaks down the keys to third-ranked Notre Dame's 79-66 victory over No. 18 Tennessee in South Bend. (2:04)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It is an oft-repeated story, repeated at least in these parts, where current subzero temperatures make it fitting material to tell around a fire. On the day that local prep star Skylar Diggins was to pick a college, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw looked toward the seats Diggins usually occupied during Fighting Irish home games, saw them vacant and feared the absence foretold a bleak future.

It didn't, of course. Diggins chose her hometown school and the rest is history.

History that Notre Dame continues to ride like a wave.

Perhaps the same wave threatening to swamp Tennessee.

With Diggins looking on from the front row Monday night, No. 3 Notre Dame cruised to a 79-66 victory against No. 18 Tennessee, a game between teams that played to those respective rankings. It was like the games between these teams in each of the past five years, each of which Notre Dame won by double digits. It was unlike the first 20 games in the series, all won by Tennessee.

"I like the last six better than the first 20," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw deadpanned.

When Diggins arrived, Notre Dame was a program with a history of winning and a national championship to its name, but the program's place in the basketball universe was defined by its inability to beat Tennessee for so many years. One program was a global superpower. The other was Sweden or Australia. That all changed one night in Dayton when Notre Dame, behind its sophomore star, beat Tennessee 73-59 in a regional final. A win against Connecticut in the Final Four followed, as did Final Four appearances in the next four seasons.

"I think it was a mindset," McGraw said of what changed. "I think when you beat two teams like that back to back, which maybe never was done in history, and to know that we were capable, we really got a lot of confidence from that. I think it helped us in recruiting. I thought it made people stand up and take notice."

It created institutional memory that lingers even as actual memories fade; only three players who took part in Monday's game ever shared the court with Diggins.

After they combined for 41 points against the Lady Vols on Monday, Brianna Turner, Arike Ogunbowale and Kathryn Westbeld were asked if they recalled watching Notre Dame beat Tennessee in Dayton five years ago. Turner, a sophomore, and Ogunbowale, a freshman, shook their heads. Westbeld, a sophomore who is a Dayton-area native, tentatively acknowledged she did but immediately noted she couldn't recall any details and didn't attend the game.

"Hey guys, give this group a break. They're playing as hard as they can. Are they playing great? Absolutely not. But they're putting it all out there."

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick

The point is that history happens at breakneck speed when crafted by people whose lives are barely two decades old. The blink for some, the five years between the first win against Tennessee and this win, is the difference between adulthood and childhood.

And yet to watch Notre Dame succeed as something more than the sum of its parts is to see something about more than the present. Notre Dame shouldn't be 17-1, not after it lost Jewell Loyd to the WNBA a season earlier than expected and freshman Ali Patberg to a season-ending injury and junior Taya Reimer to her own decision to leave the team. Down to Turner, Westbeld and little else in the post, the Fighting Irish likewise shouldn't have been able to find so much success inside against Tennessee's Bashaara Graves and Mercedes Russell. But they are 17-1, as Turner and Westbeld combined to hit 13 of 17 shots.

As much as Monday's win was the product of a balanced offense that featured six players in double digits, Notre Dame also needed Ogunbowale to come off the bench and change its offensive look after Tennessee rallied to lead after the first quarter. It needed her 14 points on confident pull-up jumpers and aggressive moves to the basket. So was it successful because it recruited an uber-confident player unfazed by shaky shooting performances earlier this season?

Or was she unfazed because of the culture that surrounds her?

As Ogunbowale answered questions about her confidence, Turner couldn't contain a smile that said just as much in silently suggesting confidence isn't something her teammate lacks. Ever.

"People know I'm going to drive, so they're just going to be falling [off] left and right," Ogunbowale said. "So I just have to work on my pull-up, and that's what I tried to do today."

It rubs off when you spend every day in a place that expects success and is rarely disappointed.

Perhaps the reverse is equally difficult to wash out of the laundry.

In danger of carving out a rut in the wood similar to those pounded through the snow outside, Tennessee coach Holly Warlick spent the game seemingly living and dying on each possession. Staring at a Notre Dame offensive set at the far end of the court at one point, she slipped into something almost like a defensive crouch. When Turner scored, she looked toward the ceiling and resumed her pacing. It is not easy to be Tennessee these days.

The Lady Vols have 190 wins since the start of the 2009-10 season, more than all but four teams in the country over that span. (Notre Dame is among that quartet, with 219 wins.) Tennessee has more victories in that span, in fact, than programs like Florida State, Kentucky, Louisville and Texas A&M, all of which feature coaches who are rightly credited as being among the best in their profession.

"We've lost six games, uncharacteristic for Tennessee. But that doesn't mean we don't have a heart, that we don't fight, that we don't love this program."

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick

Warlick isn't hearing much of that kind of praise these days. It's those 29 additional wins Tennessee doesn't have and Notre Dame does that matter to people.

"I knew what I was getting into," Warlick said. "These kids knew what they were getting into. And we understand that. So they're just going to go back to work. That's all we got to do. We just got to stay positive and go back to work. You know we're hearing a lot of negativity from our fans and from people. Hey guys, give this group a break. They're playing as hard as they can. Are they playing great? Absolutely not. But they're putting it all out there."

Warlick and the players who had just listened to her address them after the game lamented the team's 20 turnovers, although that wasn't out of line with their season average. After productive early touches, they couldn't get the ball inside to Graves and Russell with any consistency. And the shoulder problem that kept Diamond DeShields in the locker room for extra treatment during the opening minutes of the second half, which she described only as something she "tweaked," loomed larger than Loyd's absence altogether.

It doesn't help that at least for now there are no reinforcements on the way after Tennessee struck out in recruiting.

"We've lost six games, uncharacteristic for Tennessee," Warlick said. "But that doesn't mean we don't have a heart, that we don't fight, that we don't love this program.

"This group needs somebody to rally behind."

Notre Dame was an excellent program long before Diggins arrived seven years ago and long before that night in Dayton five years ago.

It just wasn't the kind of program that beat Tennessee.

Tennessee remains an excellent program eight years after its last national championship.

It just isn't the kind of program that beats Notre Dame.

At least for now, those days are history.