- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Big numbers are part of the equation with Skylar Diggins. So, too, is a big personality. But in the end, stars are measured by big games as much as anything else. On that count, it's safe to say Tennessee or Connecticut still qualify.
Currently fourth among Notre Dame's all-time leading scorers after surpassing 2,000 career points with a big first half against Providence on Saturday, Diggins has scored 12.3 percent of those points against two particular teams, out of more than 60 she has faced in three-plus seasons with the Fighting Irish.
Which two weaklings has she picked on for such a significant portion of her total?
Tennessee and Connecticut.
And that is how you shape a legacy.
If we start the clock when Geno Auriemma first took Connecticut to the NCAA tournament in 1989 and began to build the Rome to Tennessee's Greece, has any player earned more victories against the sport's two empires than Diggins? With a fifth win against Connecticut earlier this season, she has seven victories against the Huskies and Lady Vols in her career. It's difficult to say with certainty that's the most, but after a couple of hours spent picking through the record books, it doesn't look like there is anyone out there who can match seven, even as Diggins goes for eight Monday against Tennessee (ESPN2 and WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
One senior class at Villanova beat Connecticut eight times in Auriemma's first four seaons, and St. John's and Providence had similar success. Likewise, Tennessee Tech beat Tennessee eight times in four years in the mid-1970s (and if you want to go pre-Lord Grantham, Maryville had a nice run against the Knoxville school a decade before World War I). But if we're talking about the programs as we now know them, there are only a handful of results close to Diggins'.
Rutgers' Essence Carson and Matee Ajavon had six wins against Connecticut and Tennessee. Duke's Lindsey Harding and Alison Bales, North Carolina's Ivory Latta and Erlana Larkins, and Miami's Vicki Plowden were among the players who beat them five times.
But not seven times.
It's all the more remarkable considering Diggins didn't get her first win against those schools until the Elite Eight round of the NCAA tournament when she was a sophomore. With a trip to Indianapolis on the line, she hit nine of 17 shots, including 4-for-8 from the 3-point line, to push Notre Dame past Tennessee. A win against Connecticut followed in the Final Four behind 28 points from Diggins, making Notre Dame the first team to beat both schools in the same NCAA tournament. Last season, they became the second team to beat both schools in back-to-back seasons. And a win Monday night in Knoxville would make the Fighting Irish the first to accomplish that in three consecutive seasons.
With all of that in mind, guess who enters Monday's game on her best statistical run of the season, averaging 17.1 points per game and shooting 44.4 percent from the 3-point line in conference play?
Win or lose, good night or tough night, this is her kind of stage.
"I've never seen her shy away from pressure situations," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said earlier this season. "She wants the ball in her hands, no matter the score, no matter what kind of game she's had. She wants to take the last shot. She wants to be the one. She almost welcomes the pressure. I don't know if she puts any more on herself, but she thrives on that. I think she plays best when the expectation is the highest."
Expectations are never higher than when Tennessee or Connecticut is on the other side of the court.
There are things Elena Delle Donne manages to do on a basketball court that are worth spending 3½ hours on the New Jersey Turnpike to witness in person, which, if you've ever spent any time on the least enjoyable stretch of asphalt in America, is saying something.
It's watching the 6-foot-5 Delle Donne bring the ball up the court against pressure, casually pull off a spin dribble that draws a collective "ooooh" of appreciation from the near-capacity crowd at the Bob Carpenter Center, then pass the ball and transform into a post player who gets the ball back in the lane, drives through two defenders and hits a one-hand floater.
Or it's something as simple as the look of abject dejection on a defender's face before Delle Donne releases a 3-pointer that the unlucky opponent was too late to deny.
Those scenes came from Thursday's win against UNCW. Watching from afar Sunday, Delle Donne was at it again on the road against Drexel in a matchup of the remaining unbeaten teams in the Colonial Athletic Association. Swarmed throughout the game by multiple defenders, she still found a way to score 24 points on 50 percent shooting, including a three-point play with a little more than a minute to play to push the lead to eight points in a 65-56 win.
Delle Donne these days is night and day from the player who came back against Maryland on Dec. 20 after missing six of the team's first seven games while dealing with Lyme disease. Whereas she struggled at that time to practice on back-to-back days, she now feels good enough to seek out extra individual training after practice. You can tell from the stats -- 64 percent field goal shooting in her past three games -- or you can just watch her move with purpose.
"It's great to see her healthy again, it's great to see her feeling good," teammate Lauren Carra said after the win against UNCW. "When you see her like that, and she's knocking down shots, you can feel it from her. At this point, it's a great time if she's hitting this roll right now, especially getting deep into conference play when we're hitting James Madison, Drexel and heading into March."
But Delle Donne's artistry is not the only reason a trip to Newark, Del., for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament will be the biggest trap in the bracket for some team come March. Help will come and go on offense -- Kayla Miller provided it with three 3-pointers and seven assists against Drexel. Everyone plays their part on defense.
Drexel scored 56 points and hit just 34 percent of its shots in Sunday's game, three days after UNCW scored 39 points and shot 36 percent. On the fringes of the top 30 in field goal defense and scoring defense a season ago, Delaware began last week second in field goal defense and eighth in scoring defense. It was a good defensive team last season, but it was a team that knew it had an ace up its sleeve in the game's most unstoppable offensive player.
For essentially the same cast of characters, buoyed by a bigger role for a versatile defender in Jaquetta May, the difference between top 30 and top five might be those games they played without Delle Donne this season.
"We knew, especially then, that our defense was going to win games for us when Elena was out," Carra said. We didn't have that person we could go to immediately offensively, so we had to buckle down. Every single game, we had to know that our defense was going to win games."
Team of the week
Speaking of teams that know how to play defense, let's get to Dawn Staley and South Carolina. The Gamecocks scored a total of 98 points in two games and still had their best week of the season, knocking off No. 5 Kentucky 55-49 on Thursday and then turning around and winning a not-to-be-taken-lightly road game at Arkansas on Sunday.
The defensive effort that took A'dia Mathies completely out of Thursday's game was a masterpiece of design by Staley and execution by Sancheon White and others. In the past two seasons, a span of 56 games, South Carolina has allowed an opponent to score more than 60 points just seven times. With apologies to Jadeveon Clowney, that's the stingiest defense in Columbia. If this team could just hit free throws at something better than a cringe-inducing 54 percent, sort of a problem with a style that produces close games (they missed five and lost by four against Stanford and missed eight and lost by two against Georgia), who knows what might be possible in March.
She also starred
Crystal Bradford, Central Michigan: I honestly can't remember if I've written about Central Michigan five times or not at all because I think about writing about them just about every week. The Chippewas are a fascinating team below the national radar, beating Texas, Toledo, Saint Joseph's and South Dakota State, and pushing Notre Dame at home and Florida on the road. Now they have sole possession of first place in the MAC after rolling through Ohio and Akron this week. Bradford totaled 10 points, 14 rebounds and five assists in a rout of the Bobcats, but the sophomore saved her best for Akron and finished with 31 points, eight rebounds, four assists, four blocks and three steals. For the season, she's averaging 15.4 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.8 steals despite only starting 11 of 19 games.
Hollie Mershon couldn't push Drexel past Delaware on Sunday, but it wasn't for a lack of effort. The senior finished Sunday's game with rough shooting numbers but 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds. That came on the heels of 33 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in a win at Northeastern earlier in the week. Following in the footsteps of Kamile Nacickaite and Gabriela Marginean, albeit easier to spell, she's a workhorse for Drexel.
Everything but drive the bus
San Diego is a good place to get yourself a double-double from In-N-Out, but Chelsea Hopkins is doing the West Coast burger chain one better this season. The San Diego State senior, who transferred from Duke after two years in Durham, registered her third triple-double of the season with 25 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds against Nevada on Wednesday. Only two players, Stanford's Nicole Powell (five) and Rutgers' Tasha Pointer (four) had more than three triple-doubles in the same season (for whatever reason, of the 10 instances before this season in which a player had three or more triple-doubles, five occurred in the past four seasons).
Hopkins was not in the Wooden Award's recent midseason top 20, which is a shame for a player averaging 13.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game.
Major showdowns among mid-majors
It was a weekend full of conference showdowns in the mid-major ranks. Delaware got its win against Drexel to gain control in the CAA, but these teams also made the most of important games.
American: The Eagles made sure of gridlock in the Patriot League, beating Army 43-42 on Saturday to leave both of those teams 4-1 in the league and tied for first with Bucknell and Navy.
Chattanooga: The Lady Mocs had as good a week as any team, knocking off Samford and Appalachian State, teams that entered with just three conference losses between them. Chattanooga is now 9-1 in the Southern Conference and alone in first place. Kayla Christopher, Ashlen Dewart and Taylor Hall each scored in double digits in both games this week, with Christopher adding 10 assists against just one turnover.
Florida Gulf Coast: It was a game between conference unbeatens, but it wasn't close. Florida Gulf Coast beat Stetson 74-55 to improve to 9-0 in the Atlantic Sun. It's the 10th win in a row for the Eagles in a run that began with a win against LSU, and all nine conference wins came by at least 10 points.
Middle Tennessee: All seems to be right again in Murfreesboro after nine conference wins in a row. On the strength of 28 points from Kortni Jones, 22 points from Icelyn Elie and a double-double from Ebony Rowe, the Blue Raiders routed Western Kentucky 79-57 on Sunday to improve to 10-1 in the Sun Belt. The Hilltoppers (8-3) fall into a tie for the second-best conference record with Arkansas State.
Before next weekend
Howard at Hampton (Monday): Hampton tries to remain perfect in the MEAC against one of three one-loss teams on its heels (the other two, Florida A&M and Delaware State, also play Monday night). And while we're here, thanks to reader Brian Johnson for pointing out that Howard's Saadia Doyle recently became the third active player with at least 2,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds, joining Brittney Griner and Central Arkansas' Megan Herbert.
Iowa State at Kansas (Wednesday): Are the Jayhawks sliding into postseason trouble? They were a No. 10 seed in Charlie Creme's most recent Bracketology, and that was before a loss at home against Oklahoma State on Saturday. After this game against Iowa State, Kansas finishes with six of its final 10 regular-season games on the road, including trips to Baylor, Iowa State and Oklahoma. It's tough to imagine an NCAA tournament without Angel Goodrich and Carolyn Davis, and we're a long way from that reality, but we'd be closer with a Kansas loss here.
Miami at Duke (Thursday): It's going to be a tough week for Miami, which lost at the buzzer Sunday against North Carolina after a late turnover on an inbounds pass. Taking Morgan Stroman's terrific game out of the mix, Miami otherwise shot 20 percent and committed 27 turnovers (to be fair, Stroman played a role in the latter). A trip to Duke, which showed some hangover from its second half against Connecticut in a win against Clemson but finished the weekend strong against Boston College, isn't the best cure.
Florida State at North Carolina (ESPN3, 7 p.m. Thursday): The Tar Heels were very fortunate to come away from Miami with a win, but the Seminoles have been less than convincing the past two weeks, despite winning all four games against Boston College, NC State, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Perhaps not coincidentally, Florida State is 25 turnovers in the red in assist-to-turnover ratio in those four games, compared to just one turnover in the red in its first 17 games.
Vanderbilt at Texas A&M (Thursday): Kelsey Bone is getting a lot of attention for putting it all together this season, and understandably so for someone averaging 17.6 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, but how about Adrienne Pratcher? The senior, who had started just 14 games prior to this season, is first in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting 47 percent from the 3-point line.