Commentary

With Diggins on bench, Irish deliver

Originally Published: December 30, 2012
By Graham Hays | espnW

Natalie AchonwaMatt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports Natalie Achonwa stepped up when Skylar Diggins was held to a season-low nine first-half minutes.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Skylar Diggins had barely begun crafting her high school legend in South Bend the last time Notre Dame lost to Purdue, but the rivalry between Indiana schools that met for the 2001 national championship has grown notably less rivalrous since she arrived. That isn't an uncommon state of affairs when it comes to the Fighting Irish -- a lot of schools with little luck against the Irish found the problem only got worse once Diggins took the court.

If the weekend was any indication, it might not get much better for them once she heads to the WNBA.

Notre Dame's 74-47 rout of Purdue offered little drama, not that a sellout crowd in Purcell Pavilion seemed to mind the extended victory lap that was most of the second half. But what enabled the home team to coast to the second biggest blowout in the series (which Purdue still leads, despite seven consecutive losses) was worth paying attention to, both in advance of next Saturday's trip to Connecticut and life after Diggins next season.

Notre Dame took a 21-4 lead against Purdue, continuing a trend of early dominance in games between the two teams (Notre Dame jumped in front by scores of 21-5, 21-8 and 23-13 against Purdue the past three seasons). Diggins was as much a part of the early run as would be expected, totaling eight points and three assists without a turnover in the game's first nine minutes. But with her team still comfortably ahead and a little more than nine minutes to play in the first half, she picked up her second foul on a tough-luck call and took a seat on the bench.

For a time thereafter, as Purdue whittled the deficit to 25-20, Notre Dame looked out of sorts -- shots rushed, passes aimless. But instead of gradually giving up the lead altogether, it regained its balance. A 3-pointer from Madison Cable extended the lead to 28-20 and released some tension, and Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa took it from there. After the game, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said she was comfortable with Diggins on the bench as long as her team maintained a lead of some sort. As it turned out, the lead grew to 16 points by halftime, all with Diggins watching.

"That's huge for us because, first, it hadn't happened yet this year. She hadn't been in foul trouble," McGraw said. "And I'm sure that the other opponents are looking, saying, 'If we take Sky out of the game, what's going to happen?' And I thought we really showed them what we can do today."

Diggins played just nine minutes in the first half, her fewest all season. She played 12 minutes in the first half in a rout of Alabama A&M before Christmas, but in Notre Dame's highest profile games prior to Purdue -- Ohio State, UCLA, Baylor, Kansas State and Texas A&M -- she averaged 18 minutes per first half.

I think she's really emerging as the best post player we've had in a while.

-- Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw on Natalie Achonwa

Diggins is a singular personality when she's on the court. She's also the point guard, so it doesn't just feel like things run through her -- they do run through her. Yet when she was out, it felt like the center of gravity for the Fighting Irish eventually settled in the post. Whether she took the shot, or even touched the ball, Achonwa was the player your eyes went to on offense. She finished the game with 15 points and 17 rebounds, even if she joked that she padded the latter number by having to follow too many of her own misses.

Notre Dame isn't going anywhere of any significance this season without Diggins leading the way, and like every great inside-outside combination, she and Achonwa are both that much better working off each other. But without Diggins in meaningful minutes, it was remarkable to see just how much Achonwa, like McBride, has matured into a player who can define an important game.

"She's doing everything, really, right now," McGraw said. "She's good on the perimeter; she's scoring inside, outside. She's handling the ball. You see her bringing it up against pressure. She can do so many things. She's a great passer. We really need the rebounding; I think that's the biggest thing she's doing for us right now. But defensively, she's been solid, drawing charges, blocking shots.

"I think she's really emerging as the best post player we've had in a while."

She also starred

Sarah Hansen, Florida Gulf Coast: This is why it isn't easy for good mid-major programs to convince major programs to pay them visits. Florida Gulf Coast beat LSU 76-70 on Saturday in Fort Myers, Fla., an upset at least as measured by name recognition. The leading scorer a season ago on a Florida Gulf Coast team that reached the NCAA tournament in its first season of eligibility, Hansen totaled 30 points, nine rebounds, three assists and three steals against LSU. The Eagles use the 3-point shot and are suffering for it this season (28 percent accuracy, compared to 37 percent a season ago), but Hansen is an all-around scorer who showed it in a win people will notice.

Like her team, Minnesota's Rachel Banham played 30 minutes of forgettable basketball Sunday against Creighton. She also had the game of her life. It was that kind of day in Minneapolis. With 10 minutes to play against the Bluejays, Minnesota had scored just 33 points and trailed by 19 points at home. By the end of the afternoon, Banham had scored 39 points all on her own, and the Gophers had a remarkable rally to celebrate. Banham scored 14 points in the final 10 minutes of regulation to pace a comeback, and 15 more points in two overtimes to set a new career high in an 88-81 win for the Gophers.

Team of the weekend

Iowa: There was more tension in the second act than might have been expected, but Iowa came away from its two games in San Diego with a strong case for joining the top 25 in advance of Thursday's important Big Ten opener against Ohio State. Iowa closed out its stay in California with an 83-73 victory against the University of San Diego to win the Maggie Dixon Surf 'N Slam Classic. The Hawkeyes trailed the host Toreros at halftime of the finale but rode 33 points from Jaime Printy to the title. That win came two days after an 86-63 blowout win against No. 20 Texas. Printy also paced her team with 21 points against the Longhorns. But it was sophomore Samantha Logic who turned in a contender for curiously impressive line of the year. Logic attempted just three field goals in 31 minutes but finished with 15 rebounds and 14 assists.

Iowa is now 2-2 against teams ranked last week, adding the win against Texas to an earlier victory against West Virginia (it also beat an Iowa State team on the cusp of the top 25). Recent editions of the Hawkeyes have struggled to define themselves at either end of the court, but this group is shooting 44.6 percent from the floor and holding opponents to 34 percent shooting, a far starker differentiation than past teams.

Upset of the weekend

[+] EnlargeJim Jabir
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsJim Jabir's No. 15 Flyers (12-1) suffered their first loss of the season Sunday, falling 65-40 at Bowling Green.

Bowling Green: More words to come this week about Bowling Green, but consider this a tease after a 65-40 win against Dayton. The Falcons didn't nip the Flyers at the wire; they raced -- or more accurately, race-walked -- by the No. 15 team, one of only five unbeaten teams in the nation when play began Sunday. Also one of only a handful of teams averaging 80 points per game this season, Dayton couldn't break 40 points for the first time since a 78-38 loss at Connecticut last season, and it took 17 fewer shots than it is averaging. Duke transfer Alexis Rogers finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds in the win, while Chrissy Steffen (16 points, seven rebounds) and Jillian Halfhill (15 points, nine rebounds, three assists) helped control tempo and extend the lead when Rogers found foul trouble in the second half.

Honorable mention: Central Michigan. Texas certainly won't be ranked by the time Monday rolls around, but that shouldn't put a damper on the good vibes in Mount Pleasant, Mich., after the Chippewas beat the Longhorns in the third-place game of the Surf 'N Slam Classic. There are a lot of big-time programs that ought to feel a little guilty about their own scheduling compared to Central Michigan, which has played Notre Dame, Purdue, Texas, Florida, Northwestern, Saint Joseph's, Green Bay (twice) and South Dakota State this season. Niki DiGuilio was the hero Sunday with 21 points off the bench in a 73-65 win, but a tip of the cap to the whole body of work.

Credit also to North Dakota, which handed Utah just its second loss of the season, beating the Utes 62-56 in Salt Lake City behind 18 points from Madi Buck. It was the first win against a school from a BCS conference since 1987 for North Dakota, which only recently moved to Division I after winning multiple national championships in Division II.

Perfect no more

Georgia coach Andy Landers and Dayton coach Jim Jabir can flip their calendars to 2013 in charge of teams with a combined 24-2 record. That seems like more of a platinum lining than a silver one, but there weren't two people in the country who sounded more frustrated after their teams dropped from the ranks of the unbeaten, Georgia in a 70-59 loss against Illinois and Dayton in the aforementioned loss to Bowling Green.

Among the nation's leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio, Georgia nonetheless committed 26 turnovers and recorded just nine assists against Illinois. Jasmine James can make something out of nothing on any possession, but Georgia didn't look like a team that can improvise in the same manner as other top-10 teams.

[+] EnlargeJasmine James
AP Photo/Robert K. O'DaniellJasmine James and the Lady Dogs average barely 14 turnovers per game, but committed 26 against Illinois in their first loss of the season.

"We're a good basketball team," Landers said after the loss. "I think we showed that after we got behind by [18 points]. We came back, we fought. … I told our kids at halftime and I meant it, what happened to them in the first half was the absolute best thing that could ever happen to them … because it clearly tells you that if you don't come out and respond to challenges, you'll get buried. And we got buried."

Georgia's greatest assets are balance and experience, its four leading scorers comprised of three seniors and a junior. Those players have been through big SEC and postseason games, but for much of the night at Illinois, the Lady Bulldogs looked like a team unaccustomed to being pushed. The Illinois game was the fourth true road game of the season for Georgia, and the home slate has a lot of wins against teams that might struggle to crack the RPI top 200.

"Going on the road's not an issue with me," Landers said, suggesting this might be as many home games as Georgia has ever played. "This isn't a normal schedule. Would I change it? No, I'm not interested in changing it. It is what it is. We went to New Mexico, played very well. Went to Georgia Tech, played very well. Went to TCU, played very well for a half. Came up here and didn't play very well. But I don't know that playing on the road any more would help us."

Dayton came in tested, with wins against DePaul, Vanderbilt, Arizona State and Michigan State to its credit, but it might also have become the victim of its own success. The numbers said the Flyers entered having held five opponents in a row, and seven of the past eight, to 59 or fewer points, with similarly impressive field goal defense percentages. But Jabir's concerns about the current state of his defense played out when his team was unable to find a way to slow Rogers, a 6-foot-1 player with an all-court game, or keep the Falcons from exploiting the offensive glass.

"I've been continually telling our guys that we're not defending the way we're supposed to," Jabir said. "We don't have a sense of urgency that we should have. And it's been camouflaged by us shooting the ball great; we've been nationally ranked in all kinds of offensive categories. And our defense has really hurt us. I just told them two days ago that if we don't start defending better, one day we're not going to shoot it real well, and we're going to get beat."

Before next weekend

Delaware at St. John's (Wednesday): Persistent defense and Elena Delle Donne. It's a decent combination. The Blue Hens beat Villanova and Duquesne on back-to-back days at a tournament in New Hampshire. Neither the Dukes nor the Wildcats hit even 30 percent of their shots, and Delle Donne posted consecutive double-doubles in 30-plus minutes. St. John's can do defense -- it held Duke to 60 points and UCLA to 53 points in overtime -- but can it do enough against Delle Donne to slow Delaware's resurgence?

West Virginia at Oklahoma (Wednesday): It's the Big 12 debut for the Mountaineers, who survived a scare from a good Appalachian State team Friday. Oklahoma's Portia Durrett needed just 15 minutes to record a double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) against Cal State Northridge over the weekend, but it would presumably be a boon for the Sooners if she could play at least that many minutes regularly to expand the rotation.

Texas Tech at Oklahoma State (Wednesday): There was a lot of talk above about two of the teams that lost games for the first time this season, joining Stanford on that list over the weekend, but Oklahoma State enters Big 12 play after an impressive showing in San Diego -- routing Harvard and beating San Diego State -- to remain unbeaten. One of the nominees for national player of the week, Toni Young, totaled 30 points and 15 rebounds against the Aztecs and 16 points and 12 rebounds against the Crimson. The team is piling up points, but scored just 53 points each time out in a pair of games against Texas Tech a season ago.

Western Kentucky at UALR (Thursday): I'm not writing off Middle Tennessee State by any stretch, but this might be the marquee game of the moment in the Sun Belt, even with Arkansas-Little Rock coming off an overtime loss at Louisiana-Lafayette. For its part, Western Kentucky is already 4-0 in conference play and 11-2 overall. Sophomore Alexis Govan averages 20 points per game, another challenge for a very stingy UALR defense.

Arkansas at Auburn (Thursday): There are five teams in the SEC with two or fewer losses. Most fans might get Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina. Arkansas (12-1) and Auburn (11-2) could stump their share. Arkansas has a win against Kansas, while Auburn beat a good Chattanooga team recently, but the winner of this one buys itself more time to prove it belongs in the conversation near the top of the standings.

Maryland at North Carolina (Thursday): It's strange seeing a one-loss North Carolina team ranked in the mid-teens, but the Tar Heels didn't make much of a case for revision in a 65-58 win against Clemson on Sunday. A 45-point loss in Knoxville still hangs over this team, so with Duke and Florida State not coming to Chapel Hill for another month, this is a must-prove game for the hosts, who gave up 54 rebounds and lost in overtime in this game a season ago.

Tennessee at South Carolina (Thursday): Speaking of rankings, it was nice to see AP voters move South Carolina up after a loss against Stanford that nonetheless presented evidence in support of Dawn Staley's defense. Still, wins and losses do matter at some point, and just a year after beating Tennessee for the first time in 32 seasons, South Carolina is good enough that it needs to win this game at home, even if it hasn't done that since 1980.

Stanford at Colorado (Friday): Well, this works out well. To remain unbeaten, not to mention establish its credentials as a Pac-12 challenger at least on par with Cal and UCLA, Colorado has to beat a Stanford team that has a week to stew after shooting 19 percent against Connecticut. For what it's worth, here are Stanford's next games after losses the past three seasons, with the Cardinal's field goal percentage in parentheses: Xavier in 2011-12 (46 percent), Tennessee in 2010-11 (41 percent), San Francisco in 2010-11 (57 percent), Fresno State in 2009-10 (44 percent).

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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