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ND Women’s Basketball: Rocky Topped

Cory Bernard | Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Immediately after No. 9 Tennessee honored legendary coach Pat Summitt with a banner before tip-off Monday, an Irish star continued making the case for a banner of her own.

Senior guard Skylar Diggins, the newest member of Notre Dame’s 2,000-point club, scored a career-high 33 points to go along with five assists and four steals, and the No. 2-ranked Irish defeated the Lady Vols (16-4, 7-0 SEC) 77-67 at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn. Freshman guard Jewell Loyd added 10 points and junior guard Kayla McBride contributed nine points and 10 rebounds.

Diggins has now led the Irish (19-1, 7-0 Big East) to three straight wins in their series with Tennessee after Notre Dame dropped its first 20 matchups against the women’s basketball powerhouse. With the victory, the Irish became the first program ever to defeat both Connecticut and Tennessee in three straight seasons. Irish coach Muffet McGraw said she enjoys being in the same elite group as the Huskies and Lady Vols.

“It’s good to be in that elite company,” she said. “I think that’s where we want to be and so we’re really proud of that.”

In the first half, the game looked every bit like a top-10 matchup. Notre Dame entered the locker room holding a 33-29 lead after both teams played a clean, defensively tenacious 20 minutes of basketball. However, the Irish wrested control of the momentum early in the second half with an 11-0 run to build a 16-point lead.

“I was really pleased with the way the game went in the second half,” McGraw said. “I thought the first half, our shot selection was not as good as it could have been, but then we made a nice run in the second half. We didn’t handle it late particularly well, but managed to hang on. You know, we missed some free throws down the stretch which we don’t normally do. But overall, [with the] hostile environment and a lot of emotion on the Tennessee side, we handled it well.”

Notre Dame led by as many as 19 points in the second half, but saw its lead cut to 69-64 with 3:54 remaining. However, Tennessee never got closer than that five-point deficit. A layup by sophomore guard Madison Cable and a three-pointer by Diggins pushed the Irish advantage to 10 points, and the lead never again dipped below eight.

“I thought Skylar was magnificent,” McGraw said of her senior guard. “I mean, career-high in front of that crowd, in that environment, with great defense? She was magnificent.

“She’s got a lot of confidence in herself, she uses the ball screen well, you know, she knows when we really need her, and when to get the ball up, so she just has that great basketball IQ.”

Cable made an important contribution to the Irish victory. Although she entered the game averaging 17.5 minutes per game, she played 26 minutes Monday, including many during the Lady Vols’ second-half run. Her nine points and five rebounds continued a recent trend, as Cable had averaged 9.8 points and five rebounds over the previous four contests.

“She was so important in the win,” McGraw said of the sophomore guard. “I thought she had just great minutes, terrific job off the bench, played well in so many different stretches for us and made some huge baskets when we really needed them.”

The Irish return to Big East play Saturday when they host Cincinnati at Purcell Pavilion.

Contact Cory Bernard at cbernard@nd.edu