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ND Women’s Basketball

Irish earn Elite status

| Sunday, March 30, 2014

It just would not be the Sweet 16 without Skylar Diggins.
It does not matter that the superstar guard has not played in a Notre Dame uniform for almost a year. When her team returned to South Bend for the NCAA Regional semifinals ¾ and make no mistake, the top-seeded Irish are still very much her team ¾ Diggins was there, naturally. Watching from the stands, she saw her former teammates put in yet another solidly spectacular effort to defeat Oklahoma State, 89-72, and advance to the Elite Eight for the fourth-straight year.

Irish senior guard Kayla McBride takes the ball upcourt during Saturday's Sweet 16 victory over Oklahoma State, 89-72. McBride posted 18 points, five rebounds and four assists in the victoryKevin Song

Irish senior guard Kayla McBride takes the ball upcourt during Saturday’s Sweet 16 victory over Oklahoma State, 89-72. McBride posted 18 points, five rebounds and four assists in the victory

Diggins’ legacy looms large over this year’s team. Three straight Final Fours, two championship game appearances and 130 wins tend to do that. But this team has accomplished much in its own right. Facing a brutal first season in the ACC, the Irish played better than anyone expected, becoming the first Irish team to finish the regular season undefeated to go along with a conference title.
So, are the Irish better than they were with Diggins?
Oklahoma State coach Jim Littell thinks so.
“You don’t know where to center your attention when you play this team,” Littell said. “I think Notre Dame is just harder to guard [compared to last year] because they have so many people that can contribute in so many different ways. I think they’re pretty darn good with all the pieces they have.”
This season, the Irish average 86.8 points per game, over five more than they did last year with Diggins. They also average more assists, turn the ball over less and shoot at a higher percentage from the field and from 3-point range, while limiting their opponents to lower field-goal percentages.
These numbers, of course, do not take away from the enormous talent of Diggins or from the impressive standard she set for all teams to follow. But her departure forced Irish coach Muffet McGraw to use a more balanced approach, especially on offense.
Over the course of the season, senior guard Kayla McBride emerged as one of the best players in the country. Sophomore guard Jewell Loyd led the team in points and steals. Senior forward Natalie Achonwa led the team in rebounds and chipped in nearly 15 points per game. Every single player on the roster appeared in at least 15 games. There is no question that, without Diggins, the team has changed and grown.
“When you have a great player like Skylar, it’s easy just to resort to her,” Achonwa said. “When you need a basket or a stop, you can just resort to the superstar, so this year, without her, everyone had to do that much more and I think the team has done a good job of responding to that.”
In Diggins’ defense, the Irish have yet to play archrival Connecticut, like they did four times during the 2012-2013 season. They also will not have to deal with a player of Brittney Griner’s caliber. And, most importantly, the job is not done yet. There is still an Elite Eight matchup with Baylor, who boasts a superstar of its own in senior guard Odyssey Sims. The challenge of shutting down Sims without a player like Diggins is one of the few tests separating the Irish from becoming the greatest team in Notre Dame history.
And, of course, the Irish would never have reached the level they have without Diggins to push them there. McGraw, Achonwa and McBride are all quick to credit Diggins for forming a culture that has allowed the current team to flourish.
“She’s still sort of here, in spirit,” McGraw said. “She’s left us a legacy of that intensity and competitiveness. You see that in Kayla and Natalie and Jewell.”
So when the Irish take the court Monday night to face Baylor, with a fourth-straight Final Four on the line, Diggins will be there. Some things never change.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Greg Hadley

Greg Hadley is a senior from Rockville, Maryland, majoring in political science with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He served as The Observer's Editor-in-Chief for the 2015-2016 term and currently covers Notre Dame baseball and women's basketball.

Contact Greg