Commentary

Notre Dame digs in, holds off Wildcats

Originally Published: December 15, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- With one bold decision to launch the basketball skyward and an afternoon otherwise spent protecting it like it had a Secret Service code name, Skylar Diggins made sure there was one fewer member of the undefeated club by the end of Sunday's game between No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 7 Kentucky.

Just how hard she and the Fighting Irish had to fight to do so suggests the club of championship contenders extends to Lexington.

Behind 16 points and 11 assists from Diggins and 40 combined points from Natalie Novosel and Kayla McBride, Notre Dame beat Kentucky 92-83. For the Fighting Irish, it was a the third win against a top-12 team since a loss at top-ranked Baylor before Thanksgiving, leaving them with at least a case to reclaim the No. 2 ranking regardless of the outcome of Sunday's showdown between Baylor and Connecticut. For the Wildcats, who beat Louisville and Duke at home earlier this month, it was the first loss of the season and the cause of coach Matthew Mitchell's angst.

"They clearly wanted the game more than we did today, and they played with much more effort than we did today," Mitchell said. "They played with much more precision, they executed better, they were better coached today. They had an outstanding game, an outstanding game plan, and they thoroughly beat us today."

[+] EnlargeSkylar Diggins
Matt Cashore/US PresswireKentucky routinely harasses opponents into handfuls of turnovers, but Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins committed just three in 37 minutes Sunday.

Many of those who watched the action in a sold-out Purcell Pavaillion would disagree.

Start with the managers responsible for washing Notre Dame's jerseys. It's going to take some bleach to dispatch the lingering traces of blue left by Kentucky defenders with little regard for personal space. From the opening moments, when Kentucky's Amber Smith swiped the ball away from Novosel after six seconds, to the final whistle, when Smith seemed to have to hold herself back rather than go for the steal as Brittany Mallory dribbled out the clock, the Wildcats pressured, pestered and punished the Fighting Irish with physical defense from end line to end line.

And check with the scoreboard operator, the one responsible for pushing the buttons to reflect Kentucky's 75-74 lead with just more than five minutes to play in the second half, the culmination of a Kentucky comeback from a 10-point deficit.

Kentucky's spirt didn't ebb until Diggins, all of eight seconds out of a timeout that gave the Fighting Irish possession of the ball at the other end of the court, took a pass in the corner from Mallory and hit a 3-pointer to extend her team's lead to 81-75 with 3:35 to play. With the crowd at maximum volume, Kentucky turned the ball over off the ensuing inbounds, Novosel hit two free throws and Notre Dame eased to the finish line.

Diggins initially suggested after the game that the quick shot might not have been the approved plan for that possession. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw quickly corrected her. Letting Diggins be Diggins is always the plan.

"That was the nail in the coffin," McGraw said. "I thought the 3 was huge and then to come up with the steal after it, I think that was a momentum killer for them. That was such a huge play for us. When she let it go, I just thought to myself, 'It's in.'

"I didn't see the trajectory of the ball or anything, I just knew she was going to will it in."

She's obviously one of the best players in the country and she showed it today. We couldn't turn her over … We could not force her into mistakes, we could not keep her from getting to the basket and she just showed she was the best player on the floor.

-- Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell on Irish star Skylar Diggins

That shot aside, Diggins took control of the game by doing everything but shooting well. She hit just 5-of-12 shots for the game, and with Novosel on the bench in foul trouble in the second half, Diggins struggled to find points as Kentucky made its run to take the late lead. What Diggins did all day was manage the game. She finished with 11 assists but also just three turnovers in 37 minutes against a defense that entered forcing 35 turnovers per game.

Even as it took a lead in the first half, Notre Dame looked flustered against a level and style of pressure that if not unique, certainly given McGraw's experience against teams like Rutgers, is rarely seen. The Fighting Irish committed 15 first-half turnovers, including nine in the first eight-plus minutes. But time and again Diggins made her way into the teeth of the defense and distributed the ball to McBride, Novosel or someone else to ensure the Wildcats never pushed their momentum beyond the breaking point.

There will be guards who score more points against Kentucky. There won't be a better assist-to-turnover total.

"Really impressed with her that she could go 37 minutes today at that pace," Mitchell said. "That was not in our game plan to allow her to play 37 effective minutes. She's obviously one of the best players in the country and she showed it today. We couldn't turn her over -- 11 assists, three turnovers. We could not force her into mistakes, we could not keep her from getting to the basket and she just showed she was the best player on the floor."

As Diggins noted, it was a game worthy of a national quarterfinal or semifinal, even with all the fouls that stretched it well beyond two hours. It was two teams trying to wear each other out with defense, even as both neared triple digits on the scoreboard. It was a fair fight.

"That was one of the most entertaining games we've played here," McGraw said. "It was just so exciting start to finish. The crowd was unbelievable, definitely contributed to the win. I think every possession was at about as high a level of intensity [as it could be], and we were full speed ahead the whole game. I didn't know if we were going to run out of gas. I thought we looked a little tired by the time halftime came, but boy, we found the adrenaline in the second half."

With a little more than six minutes to play and his team holding a one-point lead, Mitchell literally bounded onto the court to meet his players near midcourt when Notre Dame called a timeout. As he made his way back to the bench, he couldn't hide a grin. In the toughest of environments against the toughest of opponents, his team had scrapped its way back into position for a win.

No wonder that such a high left him feeling so low after Diggins and the moment got the best of the Wildcats.

"We're just so disappointed," Mitchell said. "You work so hard, and the players put so much time in to get ready for the game. So I'm sure we'll feel better when time passes. I don't feel real good right now. It's just a real, real disappointing loss. I thought we had a chance to win in a tough environment. But Notre Dame is terrific. I thought we could take them out of more than we did today, but they did not buckle under pressure."

They had every opportunity to do just that. That they didn't is the reason why the Fighting Irish are expected to be in Denver for the final weekend of the season.

That Kentucky made them work for it is why the Wildcats can't be counted out of that mix, perfection be damned.

"Kentucky is a great basketball team," McGraw said. "They are terrific defensively, they can score a lot of points, they play hard -- that's a really great team."

It made for a great afternoon of basketball.

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

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

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