Commentary

Sky's now the limit for Irish

Diggins drops 27 points on Tennessee, which is held to a program-worst 44 points

Originally Published: January 23, 2012
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Run the court with Skylar Diggins and the bruises and bruised egos teach you to expect the unexpected, the ball likely to arrive out of thin air, whistling through a thicket of torsos only to arrive where it knows hands ought to be. But by far the point guard's greatest skill is making what was once unexpected entirely expected.

On a night Tennessee set a dubious program record with its fewest points in a game and suffered its most lopsided defeat in nearly 30 years, only the seismic scale of Notre Dame's 72-44 win felt at all out of the ordinary in watching these two teams compete.

[+] EnlargeSkylar Diggins
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireAfter a sloppy first half by both teams, Skylar Diggins nearly single-handedly turned the game in Notre Dame's favor.

Tennessee wasn't in Notre Dame's league. All you had to do was ask Lady Vols associate head coach Holly Warlick, who spoke for the team. She's the one who said it.

Notre Dame played Tennessee 20 times before Skylar Diggins arrived on campus. It lost every one of those games.

The Fighting Irish have played the Lady Vols twice with Diggins. Monday's victory makes her 2-0.

More to the point, the win against the Lady Vols makes almost the entirety of this Notre Dame roster perfect against the most decorated program in women's college basketball (only fifth-year seniors Devereaux Peters and Brittany Mallory were around for a Sweet 16 loss against Tennessee in 2008). And it is an entire team that looks as good as any in the nation right now, including the Baylor team that handed it its only loss. It's a team that recorded assists on 25 of 30 field goals against Tennessee. It's a team that got 27 points, five assists, five rebounds and four steals from Diggins, but also one that got 16 points, 16 rebounds, six assists and three blocks from Peters. It's a team that got 17 points from sophomore Kayla McBride, 11 of them in the first half for a player sneaking up as a scoring asset the team didn't have last season.

But it is Diggins' team. It has been since she spurned Stanford to stay home in South Bend. It's her team that became just the second to beat both Connecticut and Tennessee in back-to-back seasons, joining North Carolina in 2005-06 and 2006-07. It's her team that drew the fifth sellout crowd of the season to Purcell Pavilion, the 16th full house during the Diggins era for a program with 22 in its history. It's a team that followed her lead to turn an all-around ugly game in the first half into a historic rout.

It didn't start out that way, looking at times early on more like a game that might set the sport back a few decades than make history. With the notable exception of McBride, nobody on either team could put the ball in the basket in the first half. The teams combined to miss 48 shots in those 20 minutes. The Lady Vols missed layup after layup and free throw after free throw, while the Fighting Irish either forced shots or gave away the ball.

Diggins was as guilty as anyone, forcing passes as the Fighting Irish teetered on the fine line between familiarly frenetic and flat-out frantic.

"I think we got the shots we normally get and normally make, but they weren't falling," Diggins said. "Bad choices on my part in some transition things that I usually make better decisions in, that we usually make better decisions as a team in."

With seven minutes remaining in the first half, Diggins had three turnovers and had hit just 1 of 5 shots from the floor. A quick scan of the Tennessee box score would have revealed similarly ineffective lines from top to bottom, be it Glory Johnson, Shekinna Stricklen, Ariel Massengale or anyone in orange.

But where the Lady Vols never did figure out where to turn for an answer, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw never even pondered the question.

"I trust her implicitly," McGraw said of Diggins. "I know she's going to get going. I have total confidence in her ability, and she can turn it around instantly. I think that she did a really good job of managing her own frustration at the way that we started and really turned it on in the second half. To hit those 3s -- she hit some huge shots when the game was a little bit in question. She hit a shot and then we got a steal and a layup, it was her getting a 5-0 run that I think turned the game around."

[+] EnlargeTennessee
AP Photo/Joe RaymondNotre Dame "kicked our butts by quite a bit," Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick said. The Lady Vols hit 17 of 61 field goals.

As poorly as Tennessee played in the first half, it trailed just 23-18 with fewer than two minutes to play before the break. Diggins followed with a 3-pointer and closed the half with two free throws to push the lead to 28-18. Still, the Lady Vols had a pulse, if only they could convert some of their offensive rebounds or hit free throws at any reasonable rate.

Then Diggins hit a 3-pointer 10 seconds into the second half and found Peters for an easy basket barely a minute later. By the time she put together one more one-woman, 5-0 run with a little more than 14 minutes to play, the game was over but for the formality of time running off the clock. The exclamation point won't be recorded for posterity, Diggins whistled for a foul that could have gone uncalled when she slid along the baseline, rose and met the 6-foot-3 Johnson in the air to block a shot.

She had 13 3-pointers in her team's first 20 games this season. She broke Tennessee's back with five on Monday night. Whatever is required.

Diggins and Notre Dame outlasted Tennessee in a 73-59 victory in the Elite Eight last season. This time the Fighting Irish outclassed the Lady Vols.

"This one they kicked our butts by quite a bit," Warlick said in a simple summation of the difference between then and now.

[Skylar] Diggins doesn't guarantee the Fighting Irish anything. But she does make it easy to believe in the possibility of everything.

With the lack of confetti as concrete proof, even a record-setting win against Tennessee doesn't clinch a thing for Notre Dame in January, just as it doesn't doom the Lady Vols to a spring of despair. Notre Dame beat Duke on a neutral court in November and routed Purdue on the road, but signature wins against Kentucky, Connecticut and Tennessee came in South Bend. The rest of the major tests will come on the road, beginning with a tricky two-game trip to the Northeast to play St. John's and Rutgers this weekend and continuing with the possibility of two games in nine days against Connecticut in Hartford at the end of the regular season and in the Big East tournament.

Diggins doesn't guarantee the Fighting Irish anything. But she does make it easy to believe in the possibility of everything.

"I've never been a part of anything like this, so this is amazing," Diggins said. "So many good players on the team, so unselfish and just a great coaching staff that's willing to work. And you've got girls coming in putting in the work. I'm excited to see what we have coming up and to get back in the gym and get better and continue this run with this team."

Notre Dame has been a part of a championship before, but when it comes to Diggins, the feeling is mutual.

It has never been party to anything quite like her.

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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