Getting to the point
Laura Myers | Thursday, March 31, 2011
It was 2001, and Notre Dame’s point guard had just scored 21 points to lead her team in a 90-75 victory over No. 1 Connecticut in the national semifinals.
Notre Dame’s future point guard, all of 10 years old, was rooting for her hometown team to win it all.
Even then, Skylar Diggins admired Niele Ivey.
“She was awesome at distributing the ball to her teammates but she could also score,” Diggins said. “She just put herself in a position for her team to score, whether it was her shot or getting a shot for others.”
In her senior season, Ivey was a first-team all-Big East and a third-team All-America selection. She averaged 12.1 points and 6.9 assists per game.
She was a freshman when Notre Dame played in its first Final Four, in 1997. She starred in its next Final Four. She graduated from Notre Dame a champion.
Now a new roster of Irish players, none more than Diggins, look to Ivey for guidance.
“The look at me and say, ‘She’s been where I want to go,’ ” Ivey said.
It was 2007, and Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw had just called her championship point guard to offer her a position as an assistant coach.
Notre Dame’s future point guard was 16 years old and lighting up Indiana high school basketball.
“When Coach McGraw called me, I told my family there had to be a reason for me to come back here to the best place in the world for me,” Ivey said.
That reason was to help the team compete for national championships. And to recruit Skylar Diggins.
“I was trying to prep for my interview, and people told me, ‘You need to get Skylar Diggins,'” Ivey said. “I had no experience at the assistant coaching level or as a recruiting coach.”
But the Washington High School superstar was more than receptive to Ivey as a potential coach.
“She called me all the time,” Ivey said. “We developed a relationship during the recruiting. She’d come up to campus, we’d go out to eat.”
That relationship was a major factor in Diggins’ decision to join the Irish despite an offer from historical powerhouse Stanford.
“It made it more attractive to Skylar to know she’d be able to play and learn from Niele,” McGraw said.
It was 2009, and Notre Dame’s future point guard was beginning her college career. Notre Dame’s guards coach was there for every step of it.
Diggins played at the No. 2 guard position behind senior point guard Melissa Lechlitner, and adjusted to college life while becoming one of the most accomplished freshmen in Notre Dame history.
“[Niele has] been her mentor. I think she has done a fantastic job of helping her in every way,” McGraw said. “At practice, off the court watching film, just talking about leadership. She’s really, really been the guiding force for Skylar since she came on campus.”
Ivey and Diggins analyzed film nearly every day, and worked on adjusting the high school star to the college game. Diggins’ biggest improvement came in the weight room, Ivey said, as she worked to get stronger.
The results were remarkable: Diggins became a starter just five games into her career, and led the team in scoring (13.8 ppg), steals (2.6 spg) and assists (3.2 apg).
But the relationship extended beyond basketball.
When Ivey was at Notre Dame, then-assistant coach Coquese Washington served as her mentor in every aspect of campus life. Ivey has played the same role for Diggins. She was there for any problem the freshman might have had, from tough classes to boyfriend issues.
“She’s basically like my daughter,” Ivey said. “I’m always worrying about her, about the court, about the classroom. … We know each other inside and out. Whenever she is going through things she goes to me, and I’m happy to be there for her.”
It was 2010, and Notre Dame’s No. 2 guard had become Notre Dame’s point guard, with guidance from one who’d been there before.
“[Ivey] helped me through two transitions, the one from high school to college and the one from two-guard to point guard,” Diggins said.
When Diggins struggled to learn the details early in the season, Ivey was right there to teach.
“You could tell in the first couple games she hadn’t gotten into her groove yet understanding how to run a team,” Ivey said. “And I think that’s where I came in. I’ve been a point guard my whole life, a point guard on a championship team.”
The two continued to watch film together nearly every day, picking apart Diggins’ games and Ivey’s games to mold and improve the new point guard.
They’ve watched Ivey’s 21-point performance against Connecticut on March 30, 2001, several times. The last time was before the Big East championship game.
“I think I’m going to have to return to that and see how they executed,” Diggins said.
Under Ivey’s guidance, Diggins has begun to play like the player she’d looked up to all those years before.
“People even say we have the same ponytail. We mimic each other a lot,” Ivey said. “The only difference is she’s left-handed and I’m right-handed.”
The complete transition was no more evident than in the regional round of the NCAA tournament. Diggins distributes the ball to her teammates, but she can also score.
Against Oklahoma Saturday, Diggins broke Notre Dame’s NCAA tournament record with 12 assists. Against Tennessee Monday, she scored 24 points. In doing so, she became the only sophomore in Notre Dame history to score more than 1,000 points in a season. Her total is now at 1,016.
“Her desire to win, her competitiveness, we’re the same. We have the same passion.”
It’s 2011, and Notre Dame’s current point guard is ready to lead her team against No. 1 Connecticut in the national semifinals.
Notre Dame’s former point guard, 10 years removed from school, is rooting for her hometown team to win it all.
And Niele Ivey admires Skylar Diggins.
“Her mid-range game is something that’s developed as a sophomore. And that’s something I wish I’d had,” Ivey said. “She has it all.”
In her sophomore season, Skylar Diggins was a first-team all-Big East and a third team All-America selection. She averages 14.4 points and 4.8 assists per game.
She has just a bit further to go to imitate her role model, her “mom,” her coach, her friend.
“She’s helping me run this team like she ran it when they won the national championship,” Diggins said. “I’m trying to follow in her footsteps and do the same thing this weekend, and then hopefully we can continue that for the next couple years.”