- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NORFOLK, Va. -- It's a point guard's responsibility to make sure a team gets where it's going. None in the college game do that any better than the two who will square off Sunday when No. 1 seed Notre Dame plays No. 12 Kansas.
It might not be a coincidence that both Skylar Diggins and Angel Goodrich are conscious of where they came from.
The Norfolk Regional features four of the seven finalists for the Nancy Lieberman Award, the honor given annually to the nation's best point guard and named after the star who played her college basketball in this city (although only three of this season's finalists will be on the court, with Duke's Chelsea Gray sidelined by injury). But even in that kind of company, Diggins is in a league of her own. She's the one with back-to-back trips to the national championship game, who mastered Connecticut and awaits a likely place among the top three picks in the upcoming WNBA draft. And, yes, the one with hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers and headband aficionados.
She's also the one most likely to make it to New Orleans. But if Kansas is to continue playing far above its seed, as it did in beating Colorado and South Carolina a week ago, the effort starts with the game's other point guard.
"She's a great point guard," Diggins said. "I've seen what she's been able to do these past four years in her career at Kansas, and you know -- I'm a fan. Her ability to get the ball to her teammates, her ability to push in transition, attack the basket and finish is something that is dangerous playing against a guard like that, who knows her teammates so well."
Asked what she looks for in watching film or scouting another point guard, Diggins quickly rattled off Goodrich's field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage, steals and postseason assist-to-turnover ratio, nailing almost every figure and making it clear without saying as much that she wasn't taking the Jayhawks or their point guard lightly.
"I guess I just try to look at habits and numbers on paper and from the little film that we do have," Diggins concluded.
That's all she can do. But just like the Notre Dame All-American, whose numbers are impressive but fail to capture the complete story or soul of someone who grew up competing against older, stronger kids at the recreation center her stepfather runs, Goodrich is more than those numbers. She is the NCAA's active leader in assists. She is the player averaging 21 points a game in five NCAA tournament games the past two seasons. She also is the one who wasn't big enough, the one who should have lost her quickness to multiple ACL injuries.
And the one from a place where kids too often hear what isn't possible.
Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson and assistant Katie O'Connor were at one of the ubiquitous summer tournaments when they first saw Goodrich. It was lunch hour, the marquee games on hold as coaches ventured out for sustenance, but O'Connor asked Henrickson whether she wanted to go take a look at a 13-year-old guard from Oklahoma the assistant had heard about.
"I told Bonnie the other day," O'Connor said, "that's the best lunch we ever skipped."
When she made the 4 1/2-hour drive almost due south from Lawrence to Tahlequah, Okla., to continue the recruiting process, Henrickson said, she would call ahead to make sure the athletic director at Sequoyah High School knew she was coming. Otherwise, she knew she wasn't going to get a seat in the gym. Much like the stories about Diggins at South Bend's Washington High School, Goodrich was the biggest show for miles around, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who starred at the all-Native American school.
"She was a rock star over in Tahlequah -- literally a rock star," Henrickson said. "Thousands of people went to her high school games and followed her around. So she's had an impact in the Cherokee community in her hometown but also in Lawrence, Kansas."
Growing up, Goodrich heard all the statistics about lagging Native American college enrollment. Through the lens of athletics, the NCAA Student-Athlete Race and Ethnicity Report recorded just 837 "American Indian/Alaskan Native" female student-athletes across all sports and all three divisions (out of 174,458 total female student-athletes) for the academic year 2008-09, the first in which Goodrich was enrolled at Kansas.
She heard, too, that players her size didn't land Division I basketball scholarships. Certainly, 5-foot-4 basketball players from Tahlequah didn't have the odds in their favor.
"A lot of things -- I heard about me not having a future," Goodrich said. "I think hearing stuff like that, it just made me want to push more."
She pushed through the two ACL injuries before she ever had much of a chance to make an impression on the court in Lawrence. The first one, to her left knee, wiped out what would have been her first season. The second, this time to her right knee, wiped out most of her redshirt freshman season. It wasn't until last season, her fourth year on campus, that she said she felt like her old self again, like the player she wanted to be. But through all of that, she also was a four-time all-academic selection in the Big 12, who would like to use her degree in applied behavioral sciences to work in furthering educational opportunities for Native American children.
"A lot of people come up to me, still back home, saying, 'Oh, my children look up to you. You're a role model to my daughter.' Even little boys and stuff," Goodrich said. "That makes me feel great, like I've done something. It's not even just basketball. Some people talk about school, as well, going to school and getting a degree. It makes me feel good. It feels like I've done something; I've accomplished something for someone to look up to me."
That's not to say Goodrich is exclusively a Native American role model. The demographic makeup of the kids who swarm someone close to their own side after Kansas games is proof enough of that.
Where she's from doesn't define her. It enables her to define herself.
"I get the feeling that it's something she is very prideful about," O'Connor said of Goodrich's heritage. "But the kid doesn't talk that much about anything. I think she's a close-vested kid in general. She's got a lot of depth in her soul, but I don't know that you're going to get all that in a conversation. But I do think that's a big part of who she is. Her family is very important to her, and she has a very tight-knit group that surrounds her."
Goodrich will have her hands full Sunday afternoon. She will try to control the tempo against Diggins and the Fighting Irish, try to make sure post players such as Carolyn Davis and Chelsea Gardner get not just touches but touches that can lead to scoring opportunities. She has already done that well enough to prolong her college career a week beyond what almost anyone anticipated. Now she just needs to do it against the best, against Diggins.
"She's just got the whole package, and that's what makes her so hard to guard," Goodrich said. "She's an amazing point guard, and she just makes her team good. That's what great point guards do; they make others look good. I admire that about her. She's done so much for Notre Dame, and she's got a great story."
It takes one to know one.
19dBonnie D. Ford