Commentary

Diggins 'owns the day' in record win

Originally Published: March 31, 2013
By Graham Hays | espnW

NORFOLK, Va. -- There will in all likelihood come a day when a Notre Dame player bursts into the lane, stops her momentum just as suddenly and hits a pull-up jumper to score a record-breaking basket. The crowd will applaud in recognition of someone who scored more points than any player who wore the Fighting Irish uniform.

There will be a player who breaks the career scoring record Skylar Diggins set Sunday afternoon. It's only a matter of time. It's always a matter of time.

[+] EnlargeSkylar Diggins
AP Photo/Steve HelberSkylar Diggins became Notre Dame's career scoring leader Sunday -- and made a statement with her defense, too.

But will there be a player who demonstrates more mastery of a basketball court than Diggins did in No. 1 seed Notre Dame's 93-63 regional semifinal win against No. 12 seed Kansas, as she so often has over the past few years?

Sorry, no one is going to surpass that. No one is going to play the position better.

Records are temporary. Legends are not.

"Skylar owned the day," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "I thought she was great from start to finish, both ends of the floor."

Diggins finished with 27 points, nine assists and three steals to advance to a regional final for the third consecutive season and reach 2,323 career points (she passed current Irish assistant coach Beth Cunningham's record of 2,322). She committed just one turnover in 30 minutes. And she was never better than before the game ceased to be a contest, scoring 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting in the first half to propel the top seed from an early four-point deficit to a comfortable 40-27 halftime lead.

A day earlier, Diggins tried to explain the fine line any point guard treads between looking for her own shot and looking for someone else's shot. It's instinctual, she explained, something she feels more than thinks about. And she went out Sunday to show exactly what she was talking about. This was point guard perfection, a master chef offering two different presentations on the same theme.

Diggins was already a lot of things when she made the short trip across town to begin her freshman year at Notre Dame. She was already a local legend, first and foremost. Mostly that was because she was also already a champion, an electric scorer who led Washington High School to a state title in a town where those mean more than gubernatorial elections. But there was at least one label she now exemplifies that didn't apply.

"I wasn't a point guard when I got here," Diggins said Sunday. "So I kind of had to learn how to be a point guard my freshman year."

The instructions she got back then from McGraw were simple: When you're open, shoot it. When you're not, give it up. Nuance is for upperclassmen.

She had an immediate effect on the college game as a scorer and defender, but she was still a guard who had the ball in her hands a lot more than a point guard for a team that lost to Oklahoma in the Sweet 16.

What the rest of us saw Sunday (and so often against Connecticut or in regional finals against Tennessee and Maryland) took shape in the summer after her freshman season, when she spent hours working out or studying film with Notre Dame assistant coach Niele Ivey, the point guard who led Notre Dame to its only national championship. They would watch clips of Diggins or the previous season's team running its various sets, but Diggins also wanted to watch tape of Ivey. This was her coach, yes, but it was also the guard Diggins saw with her own eyes when the latter grew up in South Bend. Ivey knew exactly what McGraw wanted.

"She took a lot of things really hard at the beginning, not knowing, not being comfortable in that position," Ivey said. "She'd turn the ball over -- she hates turning the ball over. So if she had a negative assist-to-turnover ratio in a game or if she had more turnovers than she wanted to, she was always hard on herself. But I feel like, over time, I think she learned to trust what Coach McGraw was trying to instill in her as far as learning how to run a team."

Diggins was unstoppable in the first half against Kansas. The Jayhawks couldn't solve the pick-and-roll, couldn't find her on the 3-point line and couldn't stay with her in transition. She was her team's best option. She knew as much.

The first half wasn't so kind to Kayla McBride, who hit her first attempt of the game but then missed seven shots in a row. The ball bounced off her out of bounds at one point, and she got knocked down without a call at another. It didn't take much effort to read the pained and frustrated look on her face and know it wasn't a half the team's second-leading scorer enjoyed a whole lot.

McBride got an open look on the first possession of the second half and drained the jumper. On the next possession, Diggins put the ball right back in her hands. Another jumper dropped through the net. Notre Dame is a favorite to return to the Final Four, and far better than most of us figured it would be this season, because players like McBride, Natalie Achonwa and Jewell Loyd are, on their own merits, as good as any players on any team in the country. And because Diggins makes them even better. It's no coincidence the ball found its way back to McBride's hands or that she and Achonwa combined for 25 second-half points, many off Diggins' seven second-half assists.

The scoring record could wait. If Diggins' instincts said pass, she was going to pass, and her teammates had best be ready. Only a mishandled backdoor alley-oop cost her double-digit assists.

"I think she's just really confident in everyone around her," McBride said. "Once she sees what you can do on the court, she expects that every game. She knows where you want the ball and things like that -- she'll come to you asking, 'What plays do you want?' Stuff like that. She just knows where to find us, where we're comfortable."

[+] EnlargeAlexis Jones
AP Photo/Jason HirschfeldPoint guard Alexis Jones has done a superb job withstanding the pressures of running Duke as a freshman.

As a sophomore, her first season as a true point guard, Diggins had 31 more assists than turnovers. Since the start of her junior season, she has 203 more assists than turnovers.

How do you know when to pass and when to shoot? If you're the best, you just do.

"There were times where I passed when I should have shot, and shot when I should have passed," Diggins said of her development. "I still may have some of those moments, just not as often. But I think the biggest thing I had to figure out was just be myself. That was the hardest thing that I had to figure out. I struggled a lot my freshman year, and I think my sophomore year and toward the latter part of the season, you saw me kind of break out a little bit."

Diggins will share the court Tuesday night with Duke freshman Alexis Jones. Forced to play more point guard than expected this season after Chelsea Gray's season-ending injury, Jones was both influential and inexperienced in a 53-45 win against Nebraska. She finished with 14 points, nine rebounds and six assists, including some take-charge baskets when the Blue Devils needed them. She hit half her shots on a day the rest of her team shot 29 percent. But she also had seven turnovers and was running the offense that shot 33 percent overall. She played like a really special freshman.

"She's having to sort out things," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "This was her first go-around in the tournament. The Nebraska defense was a good defense; they're a really good team, they know how to defend. So, their help-side was really strong and lanes opened and closed quickly with them, so she had to read a lot of things. And so we were trying to help her and help the team spread the floor and show a little patience."

It is already clear her time will come. And there's every chance her team's time will come Tuesday, just as Diggins broke through in a memorable regional final against Tennessee as a sophomore to give her team its first win against coach Pat Summitt. But the Blue Devils will have to do it against a team led by a player who means much more to Notre Dame than a line in the record book. Even the top line.

"Now I'm able to just play," Diggins said. "I think that's what Coach McGraw wanted me to do. Be myself. She didn't recruit me to be anybody else. She recruited me to be myself."

As Diggins showed yet again Sunday afternoon that she's the only one of those Notre Dame will ever have.

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

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