- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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DENVER -- While most fans are watching Brittney Griner roam the lane in Tuesday night's national championship game, Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims will be zigzagging against each other up and down the Pepsi Center court.
That sideshow, pairing the two best point guards in the game against each other, may decide the game.
"She's the key," Notre Dame's Diggins said of Baylor's Sims on Monday morning. "We'll throw different things at Griner and stuff like that, but "
But keep your eye on the perimeter, where Diggins and Sims are expected to face off in an epic game-within-the-game to help their team win the championship (ESPN/ESPN3, 8:30 p.m. ET).
Yes, the marquee matchup will be Griner against whomever Notre Dame can throw at her (likely a combination of starting forward Devereaux Peters and backup Natalie Achonwa, plus random double teams), but Sims has aggressively asserted herself as the dominating perimeter presence for Kim Mulkey's undefeated Baylor club. She is averaging 14.8 points per game this season, but 16.1 per game in the postseason and 20.5 against ranked opponents.
Diggins is her team's leading scorer this season (averaging 16.8 points per game), but she does that surrounded by three other guards and Peters -- not a dominating, defense-busting center in Griner. Sims is an ultra-physical, defensive-oriented sophomore, while Diggins is the more finesse, hyper-competitive junior. And while Diggins is often working the gaps and seams, trying to pry open a balanced defense, Sims is usually punishing defenders who lean too heavily on Griner.
Sims and Diggins' games overlap in certain, smaller ways -- both love getting into the head of the opposing point guard -- but their games are similar in one, very important way: they're both left-handed.
"We use a different side of the brain," Diggins said of lefties. "It's a difference in stance on defense. You're used to forcing a player one way and contesting a shot a certain way. Left-handers are crafty people."
Having one left-handed point guard is unusual, but having two lefties going against each other on the biggest stage is almost unheard of. Diggins said it will take adjustments, both physical and mental, to alter her defensive approach against Sims. Even though Diggins has an inherent understanding of the left-handed mindset, she is more accustomed to reacting defensively to a right-handed player. Both guards will have to close each other out by shading their left hands; it's a small change, but another interesting wrinkle to Tuesday's game.
Diggins and Sims spent Monday's off day heaping praise on one another. Sims called Diggins "great all around" and then complimented her court vision, ability to create off the dribble going all the way to the rim and ability to hit the pull-up jumper.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge," Sims concluded simply.
Sims and Diggins played together last summer on Team USA's under-21 squad, which won gold at the World University Games in China. The duo played mostly together, as the starting backcourt, dogging opposing guards from baseline to baseline. Baylor starting forward Destiny Williams played with Diggins on the U-19 national team a couple of years earlier and compared the two point guards.
"Skylar had more experience over Odyssey," Williams said. "Odyssey has grown and matured into a fine basketball player. Her defense is amazing. When she picks it up, the whole team picks it up. I enjoy playing with both of them, but I'd rather have Odyssey."
Of teaming up with Sims for Team USA, Diggins said the two of them "thought the same way" last summer. Both players also will likely be in the mix for the starting guard spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.
"We both wanted to win," Diggins said. "When you have a player thinking the same way, that's the best. We were like a two-man press out there."
On Tuesday night, there will still be two people pressing, but they'll be pressing one another. In November, Baylor defeated Notre Dame, 94-81, a game in which Diggins said she was outplayed by Sims. Diggins finished with 27 points, but also had seven turnovers; Sims scored 25 points and dished out six assists.
"I think you'll see two of the finest point guards in the country, and I anticipate that it won't be any different than when Odyssey guarded [Diggins] and played against her at our place," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. "I thought Odyssey was outstanding in that game. I thought she held her own, and I'm sure glad she's on my team."
But that game was so long ago; neither team seems to find it a useful predictor of Tuesday's outcome. ("I can't remember a whole lot other than what film brings back to my memory," Mulkey said of the preseason WNIT meeting. "We've had too many games between then and now. They're a different team, we're a different team.")
It has been six months since that last Baylor-Notre Dame meeting, but the most crucial point hasn't changed: everything the Lady Bears do still goes through Griner and Sims.
"Odyssey has really done a lot of great things this year," Diggins said. "And it's not just because she can throw the ball to Griner."
15dBonnie D. Ford