- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NORFOLK, Va. -- The only thing Skylar Diggins doesn't have is a national championship. She wasn't going to get that in Norfolk, but she darn sure wasn't going to watch it slip away here. Notre Dame is heading to the Final Four for the third consecutive season after a 87-76 win against Duke. In foul trouble early, Diggins nevertheless stole the show with 24 points, nine assists and five steals. A quick reaction:
Overview: Duke's best-case scenario unfolded early. Diggins picked up her second foul barely four minutes into the game and took a seat on the bench. Kayla McBride struggled to find her shot. And Duke's defensive looks made it that much tougher for the Fighting Irish to establish any rhythm without their point guard. It looked like it might be a defensive struggle, with the added benefit of Tricia Liston's hot hand propping up Duke's field goal percentage.
But Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw was rewarded for taking a risk by putting Diggins back in the game with more than eight minutes to play in the opening half. Duke still had a six-point lead at the break, but the seeds of the second-half comeback were planted when Diggins hit three 3-pointers in the span of a little more than two minutes late in the half. Instead of trading lost possessions, the teams were trading baskets. That favored the Fighting Irish.
Turning point: Does the moment Diggins decided to stay home and go to Notre Dame instead of going to Stanford count? Whatever you choose from Tuesday's game, Diggins probably features prominently. This was her stage.
The point at which the game tipped irrevocably toward the Fighting Irish probably came in about a two-minute sequence early in the second half. It began with Diggins opening up Duke's zone with an entry pass to Natalie Achonwa that put Alexis Jones in a tough spot against a bigger player and led to the guard's third foul. Fast forward about 60 seconds and Diggins threw an alley-oop inbound pass to Jewell Loyd, came off a screen to hit a 3-pointer and then made the play of the game by sliding between defenders at the top of the lane and delivering a no-look pass to Achonwa that tied the score at 40-40. Notre Dame still had work to do at that point, but the court had tilted toward the green.
Key player: Look, there's really no way to go any other direction. It was Diggins. But in lieu of wearing out the keys that spell her name just yet, let's at least mention Loyd. McBride came up big in the second half after a very tough shooting effort in the first half, and Achonwa did plenty of good against Elizabeth Williams -- but in both good times and bad, Loyd was the Notre Dame player who seemed most visible. She finished with 17 points and eight rebounds, numbers that only partly sum up the energy she brought to the court.
Key stat: 21 turnovers. Duke doesn't necessarily depend on possession efficiency to win. It wants to make games a little frantic with its defense, and it's willing to live with some turnovers in the process. But against this Notre Dame team, the lost possessions were especially costly.
What's next: Stop us if you've heard this one before. Notre Dame will play Connecticut in a national semifinal, the fourth meeting of the season between two teams that will no longer be Big East rivals when the final buzzer sounds in New Orleans. This is the third season in a row the teams will play four times -- twice in the regular season, once in the Big East tourney and then in the Final Four. As you also might have heard, Notre Dame has all the momentum in the series, winning three games this season and seven of the past eight. Duke ends its season at 33-3.
13dBonnie D. Ford