- Graham Hays, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
Skylar Diggins' mother recalled a letter from Ball State when her daughter was in fifth grade. Notre Dame offered a scholarship before Diggins scored a point, let alone won a title, at South Bend's Washington High School.
Monday night has been a long time coming.
Notre Dame officially honored its seniors as part of last week's game against Syracuse, recognition for what Diggins and Kaila Turner contributed in four seasons with the Fighting Irish. Monday's farewell is a little longer in the making. A capacity crowd of 9,149 will gather in Purcel Pavilion to see Notre Dame and Connecticut play (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) for first place in the Big East in what has become the best rivalry in women's basketball over now 10 meetings in the past two-plus years. But they will also be there for the same reasons an almost identical number watched a less meaningful game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Nov. 15, 2009, at the time the largest crowd for an opener.
That was the first game Diggins played for Notre Dame. This is the last home game she will ever play in her hometown.
She would no doubt say the story isn't over until she and her teammates cut down a net in New Orleans, but whatever happens against Connecticut, whatever happens in the Big East tournament and whatever happens in the NCAA tournament, Monday will be proof the past four seasons already lived up to impossible expectations. It turned out that Diggins was exactly as good as advertised. Even in a program that won a national championship without her, she brought the crowds and brought a community to the Joyce Center in a way that only someone from South Bend could. She thrived on and amidst attention that could have been suffocating.
And the coach who was once a stranger to South Bend helped make it work.
Like most everyone else in the area, Muffet McGraw read the stories, watched the highlights and heard the buzz as a young Diggins took her place as a local star. Notre Dame's proximity provided a unique perspective in the recruiting process, but McGraw wasn't sure she would have an opportunity to coach Diggins until almost the last possible moment, when the latter chose to stay close to home rather than attend Stanford.
"We got to know each other because she was able to come over and see us play so much," McGraw said earlier this season. "But even then, she was kind of closed; she wasn't quite that open.
"You had to wonder what she was thinking sometimes. It took awhile for us to forge that trust with each other."
McGraw made a name for herself long before the past few seasons, which is why the coach entered the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame when her latest star was only halfway through her time at Notre Dame. But like Geno Auriemma, Kim Mulkey and Tara VanDerveer -- all of whom won titles and staked claims to coaching excellence before Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Candice Wiggins, respectively, ever played for them -- McGraw's time with Diggins promises to define her in the popular consciousness as much as anything that came before and anything that comes after. Partly by their success, but also by sheer dint of personality, certain players do that.
It first required a freshman season of stops and starts, but the connection strengthened when Diggins was a sophomore. First the assists soared and the turnovers fell, all while the point kept coming. Then the big wins came, first Tennessee in the Elite Eight, than Connecticut in back-to-back Final Fours. Now the relationship rests somewhere between coach and player and coach and assistant.
"She developed me into a point guard," Diggins said this past fall. "I was a two guard, and I think a lot of trust comes from there, trusting in her to be able to have the faith in me to move to the point guard from the two guard.
"I think my relationship with her became closer as I had to make that transition into what she wanted, knowing what kind of plays, time, score, possession, things like that. And getting to know players through her, watching a lot of film. I think our relationship is very close because it has to be. And we just have similar personalities, also, I think."
Not too similar to coexist.
McGraw has lived in Indiana since before Diggins arrived in the world, but the coach's Philadelphia roots are persistent enough that she still pokes fun at her son for substituting the Midwestern "pop" for a particular carbonated beverage that any right-speaking resident of the Northeast knows as soda. That's the benign residue. The acerbic, sarcastic, combative part is there, too, and it served her well in even greater amounts when she started in the profession at a time when a coach didn't worry about what a player thought -- because the coach told them what to think.
"I'm not warm and fuzzy," McGraw said. "I'm just not. I'm more warm than I used to be, but I'm not at all. And that's how everybody is in Philly."
To say that's incompatible with a Midwestern ethos is to ignore the careers of coaches like Bob Knight and Gene Keady, but the more time she spent at Notre Dame, the more she contends she adapted to changing times.
"With the 2001 [national championship] team, I felt like I needed to be nicer," McGraw said. "They don't need to hear me yell at them. They know what to do. I have to change. And that was the year I really felt like I started to change to be a more -- every play's not life and death. They're going to make mistakes; they're not doing it on purpose. Relax, breathe, enjoy the journey, that kind of thing. That team helped me learn that."
Maybe the McGraw fresh out of Philadelphia would have been just as willing to entrust Diggins with the reins -- her fellow Philadelphia-raised foil in the Big East certainly managed to give Taurasi all the freedom her game demanded without losing an ounce of acerbity. Great coaches don't make a habit of wasting great talent. And the stricken look that still crosses her face after a mental miscue from her team coupled with the sharp reprimands still seen in huddles suggests everything is relative -- she still says soda, after all. But just as Diggins proved she was ready for a coach like McGraw, the Hall of Famer was ready to then trust Diggins with her team.
"Now don't get me wrong," Diggins said. "She's from Philly, and sometimes the Philly side of her comes out with the brutal honesty. But I could appreciate that."
It slights Natalie Achonwa and Kayla McBride, in particular, the credit they are due to say Diggins singlehandedly kept this season's Fighting Irish in the championship picture after losing three starters from back-to-back national finalists, and yet the senior point guard's personality shapes this team. She is the one scowling and scolding when freshmen make mistakes in practice, and she is one of the reasons they have so often played beyond their years in big games. It can be tough love, but at least on the court, Diggins isn't the warm and fuzzy type, either. Warm and fuzzy doesn't beat Connecticut five out of six times.
More than 25 years after she arrived as a stranger in a strange state, McGraw will watch Diggins play her final game in the only place she has ever called home.
It's the perfect partnership for the place.