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Unsung players develop into vital contributors

Meaghan Veselik | Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Texas A&M had two players leading their team in the national championship game. The Irish had five.

Five supreme leaders who fought their hearts out for an entire season to get to the final game, and lose. Five leaders who fought the odds and tried to give Irish coach Muffet McGraw another national title. Five leaders who gave it all they had, but it wasn’t enough. Five leaders whose numbers don’t show how many pieces their hearts broke into.

McGraw said it all in a few simple words as her players wiped at red eyes next to her during the postgame press conference: “What an incredible season.”

No one expected the young Notre Dame team to ever make it past the Big East tournament, and not even far in that, either. Some thought sophomore guard Skylar Diggins was a player to watch, but she was still learning to lead a rebuilding squad.

Lost were junior guard Natalie Novosel and senior forward Devereaux Peters, who never had a chance to prove themselves, just like Diggins hadn’t had a chance to grow into the leader she would later become. In the fall, McGraw herself never imagined making the trip to Indianapolis in April — that is, until her team came back from a season-ending loss to Oklahoma driven to succeed.

“You lose that last game, and you just get motivated to come back and work a little bit harder and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” McGraw said.

Most motivated of all was Diggins, the impressive guard who was left alone to lead this point this year. Although she struggled to gain control at times in the beginning and adjust to her teammates looking to her guidance on the court, McGraw and the nation were granted front row seats to the Skylar Diggins Skills Show by the end.

“She really stepped up her game, I thought, in the NCAA tournament, particularly as the games went on,” McGraw said. “I think she came into this season as somebody that people were aware of. And I think she really gave herself a big shot of credibility coming into next year as one of the top players in the Big East and one of the top players in the country.”

Diggins’ leadership shows in her stats, with 28 points in the Final Four win over Connecticut and 23 in the national championship and in the accolades she’s earned over the season: being named to the Naismith list, as the MVP of Notre Dame’s regional competition and to the All-American team. But stats and awards aren’t everything.

Rather than showing on the court, Diggins’ most leader-like moment may have been at the end of the game when she walked off the floor at the buzzer to be with her teammates.

“After the buzzer went off, they’re celebrating and things like that,” Diggins said. “I just wanted to get off for my team and get ready to talk to everybody and finish it out with the huddle.”

McGraw saw Diggins’ game in a more positive light. 

“Just a fabulous end to her season,” McGraw said. “I think she really, really figured out how she could score and how she could lead us.”

Peters was another Irish leader McGraw never was able to see come into fruition in previous seasons after suffering multiple knee injuries. McGraw certainly could never have predicted that Peters would come out of Tuesday’s title game as Notre Dame’s stats star with another double-double: 21 points and 11 rebounds.

“I thought she was effective around the basket,” McGraw said of Peters’ night. “Overall, I thought kind of a nice momentum builder for her going into next year.”

Peters entered the season never having had a chance to fully show what she was capable of, but she certainly did in 2010-2011, earning herself a spot on the All-Big East First Team, the Big East Defensive Player of the year award and All-America finalist honors.

If anyone knows where Peters’ drive came from, it’s Novosel, Peters’ partner in growing into essential Irish players this season. Both went from overlooked names on the roster to essential cogs in the machine that started every game.

Novosel scored in double figures a team-high 33 times this year, including 14 points in the title game and a game-high 27 points against Gonzaga Dec. 29. 

“Dev and I worked so hard over the summer, and it showed in the fall,” Novosel said. “My success this year came from just being aggressive. When coach told me, you know, they can’t contain you, they can’t contain you, I just need you to take it to the basket. That was my success this year, just creating that. “

Although the loss hurts right now and there are a number of broken Irish hearts, Novosel said the loss will only be a motivating factor for next year.

“In a way it does, I think it hurts more right now. I think it’s going to be in the back of our minds throughout the entire summer, all preseason, and it’s going to be a motivating factor because we were this close to that goal and we fell short,” she said. “When it comes down to it, it’s all about using this as motivation and progression.”