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ND Women’s Basketball: Skylar Diggins seeks another Irish Final Four

Andrew Owens | Friday, August 19, 2011

Following a magical run in the 2011 NCAA tournament, a Hall of Fame induction for Irish coach Muffet McGraw in the summer with junior guard Skylar Diggins leading the way, Notre Dame faces some of the highest expectations it has ever seen in McGraw’s 25 years at the helm.

The 2010-11 season ended with a 76-70 loss to Texas A&M in the championship game after it upset No. 1 seeds Tennessee and Connecticut, a squad that had defeated the Irish three times before the Final Four matchup in Indianapolis.

“We didn’t win so I think we came away with a feeling of disappointment that we got that far and couldn’t finish it,” McGraw said. “So I think we’re all really committed to getting back and this time finishing it.”

Only forward Becca Bruszewski left the Irish starting rotation. The graduate served as the team’s emotional leader in addition to contributing 8.9 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per contest.

“It’s difficult and it’s a challenge every year when you see a class graduate,” McGraw said. “The class before Becca graduated and people wondered who would fill in the gaps and people did it. We expect [sophomore forward] Natalie Achonwa and [freshman forward] Markisha Wright would be the people that would fill in terms of playing time.”

Achonwa elevated her game down the stretch and provided some productive minutes at key times in the Big East tournament and NCAA tournament. Her contributions helped hold Connecticut freshman center Stefanie Dolson to just seven points, four rebounds and four personal fouls in 25 minutes.

McGraw said she has already seen improved leadership by a few of the team’s veterans in Bruszewski’s absence.

“[Senior forward] Devereaux Peters has really stepped up with her leadership,” McGraw said. “With [senior guard] Natalie Novosel and [senior guard Brittany] Mallory returning, we have a really solid senior presence.”

Diggins is arguably the most important component to the team’s fortunes in 2011-12. The South Bend native burst onto the national scene during the NCAA tournament and quickly became a national celebrity. She gained 10,000 Twitter followers during the national semifinal against Connecticut alone and currently has over 115,000 followers, making her not only the face of the Irish but also the face of the sport.

“I think with improved leadership she’ll have the ball in her hands and be the leader on the court,” McGraw said. “We expect she will continue to improve in a lot of ways really in her demeanor and leadership and how to manage the team. She did a really good job of that [last season].”

Diggins averaged 15 points per game and 4.8 assists per contest and sparked the Irish to the national championship game. She scored 20 or more points in four of the six tournament games, including 24 against Tennessee in the program’s first-ever victory over the Volunteers, 28 against Connecticut and 23 in the loss to Texas A&M.

In their quest for the program’s second national title, the Irish will once again face one of the most difficult schedules in the country, starting with the non-conference slate, which will be revealed in full in September.