- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- It's no easy trick: being focused on an ultimate goal, but not too focused. Notre Dame point guard Skylar Diggins has been thinking about winning a national championship for the Fighting Irish since she was a little kid and saw her hometown team celebrating the NCAA title in 2001.
That's a long time to carry a very specific dream that an extremely small amount of Division I players actually get to realize. Diggins has been in the past two NCAA title games, with the Irish losing to Texas A&M in 2011 and Baylor last season.
Having lost three seniors from their 2011-12 team, the Irish were not a preseason favorite to get back to the Final Four again. Yet here they are, with another shot at the title that Diggins has had in mind for so long. Somehow, though, she hasn't let it become burdensome.
"She definitely sees the bigger picture," Irish assistant coach Niele Ivey, Notre Dame's point guard in 2001 who has been a key mentor for Diggins, said. "If she harped on it too much -- 'I've GOT to win a national championship!' -- it would break her. She wouldn't be able to function. She's realized she can't take all that on. She wants to perform at her best, but she's smart enough to realize there is so much more than that, and how basketball has opened doors for her."
Diggins has reached a level of popularity that could have gone to her head. But to borrow the so-corny-it's-almost-cool old Casey Kasem tagline, she has kept her feet on the ground while reaching for the stars.
That's not to say that Diggins is unaware of the aura she has or her effect on her fans. She's not oblivious, for heaven's sake. But she hasn't let that become a distraction from the tasks at hand, both academic and athletic.
Asked if it got more difficult to keep "being herself" after her popularity surge from the 2011 Final Four in Indianapolis, Diggins shook her head.
"No, it didn't," she said. "I've always been myself, and nobody will ever make me not be myself.
"The city of South Bend really raised me, and the community has been so supportive. I feel like I've met everybody in South Bend, and it's been an amazing experience. I'm so glad I got the opportunity to share it with them and for them to be a part of it."
When this season began, though, even the biggest Irish boosters had to be skeptical that Notre Dame could be in position for Diggins to be two games away from a championship. Too much had been lost, and too much had to be re-constructed. Plus, there were just too many other good teams. Right?
"I thought after the Baylor game, I changed my whole thinking on this team," Notre Dame coach Muffett McGraw said of the Irish's 73-61 closer-than-the-score loss on Dec. 5. "I thought we played really well, and so I gained a lot of confidence. I really looked at the team a lot differently."
It ended up being Notre Dame's only loss to this point. Subsequent wins over Texas A&M on Dec. 21 and UConn on Jan. 5 cemented the notion in McGraw's head all the more that this Notre Dame team really could challenge for the program's second NCAA title.
Now, it would take a fourth victory this season over UConn to send the Irish to the championship game again. Some reporters tried Saturday to get Diggins to talk about a supposed "mental edge" that Notre Dame had developed by winning seven of the past eight against UConn. But Diggins wasn't having any of it.
"I don't think the past three games even matter," Diggins said of this season's Notre Dame success against the Huskies. "It's the end of the year, and everybody wants to win."
Diggins, who is averaging 17.3 points and 6.0 assists, also knows that the Huskies are playing their best basketball of the season right now. UConn's freshman class has made big steps even just in this NCAA tournament.
Beating the Huskies again will take the absolute best Notre Dame has. What Diggins is able to do is bring that out in everyone around her. And she has a fearlessness when it comes to making big plays that is crucial for a team trying to win a title.
"Everybody assumed that because you graduate three starters like they did that your team is going to really suffer the following year," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of Notre Dame. "And in the normal situation, they might have. But when you've got a guard like Skylar Diggins people maybe underestimated just how much of an impact someone like that can have on your team."
Auriemma compared it to the way Diana Taurasi was able to carry UConn to a championship in 2003, the year after the Huskies had lost four starters to graduation and the WNBA.
Taurasi ended up with three NCAA titles, though, and that's something Diggins can't match. But getting one would mean a great deal to the player who knows her school's history as well as anyone in the Final Four.
"She's grown up loving the program and the university," Ivey said. "She's so smart, competitive and passionate. She's a great teammate and friend, and it's just in her to be a leader.
"She's learned to manage her frustration; that was probably the biggest growth. Her freshman year, being an off-guard to becoming a point guard, she learned how to run the team and understand the game the way a point guard has to. But there were times if something adverse happened, she could take herself out of a game in frustration. She really grew from that: being able to handle a situation and move on."
Diggins will also have to move on if she ends up not getting a championship here in New Orleans. The WNBA awaits; it's expected she will be either the No. 2 or No. 3 pick in April 15 draft.
There is still a lot of basketball to play in Diggins' life, but winning it all would be that monumental feat that culminates a great college career.
"It would mean a lot -- I say this over and over -- to our team, our program, the city of South Bend, the university, Coach McGraw," Diggins said of an NCAA title. "The opportunity is here now."
12dBonnie D. Ford