Outstanding Senior Athlete: Skylar Diggins
Vicky Jacobsen | Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Editor’s Note: A version of this story originally appeared in the Irish Insider on April 5.
It’s how senior guard Skylar Diggins greeted her 388,501 Twitter followers (and counting) before each contest, including the 83-65 loss to eventual champion Connecticut in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament April 7. The defeat put an end to Diggins’ chances of winning a national championship after making three straight trips to the Final Four.
Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer never brought home a title, but her career was far from a failure.
“She’s a champion,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw told the media after the Final Four loss. “We didn’t win it, but what she’s done for us has been amazing. She leaves Notre Dame as the most celebrated and decorated player, the best player ever.”
The recruitment of Skylar Diggins, the proud South Bend native, has become a familiar story for Irish fans. But assistant coach Niele Ivey, who was charged with bringing Diggins to Notre Dame, said she wasn’t sure she had made the sell until the then-high school senior made the announcement in the Washington High School library.
“I was sweating it out to the end,” Ivey said. “I always felt like we had a chance, you could say. I always felt like this is home for her, it would be hard for her to leave. I guess I was always nervous.”
Ivey and Irish coach Muffet McGraw were successful in recruiting Diggins to Notre Dame, but it was Diggins herself who brought a new crew of fans to Purcell Pavilion.
“I feel like I met everybody in the crowd,” Diggins said. “There are so many fans that have been familiar faces that I’ve been with since Washington, since my middle school days. And it’s just a great feeling, to be from here and to see the support, knowing people are in your corner and want you to win.”
McGraw said the backing from local fans was palpable.
“I think people like the home talent. They appreciate that kids stay close to home,” McGraw said. “When we went to Indianapolis for the Final Four [in 2011] we got a huge crowd. The entire state was cheering for us. So, I think it’s a bonus to have a player like that stay close to home and help us grow our fan base and create more interest in the women’s game.”
It was during that NCAA tournament in 2011 that Diggins, then a sophomore, began to attract attention outside of Michiana.
“Probably my biggest moment [from Diggins’ career] was when we beat Tennessee in the Elite Eight and made our first Final Four since 2001,” Ivey said. “It was a monumental stage for us. It was the first time beating Tennessee, first time beating [then-Tennessee coach] Pat Summitt at the head of the program. That was the year Skylar became a household name.”
The inscription on the statue of former Irish football coach Dan Devine reads: “Leave the field a better player. Leave Notre Dame a better person.”
According to coaches and teammates, Diggins is taking that motto a step further, leaving the program itself stronger at her departure.
“I try not to think of it,” Ivey said when asked what the team would be like if Diggins had not come to Notre Dame. “I knew that that piece of the puzzle for us was basically program-changing. She draws so much attention, even from other recruits.
“Recruits want to come here because they could be a part of this with her. Like anyone who looks up to LeBron, they want to go play for the Heat. That’s what she brings for us.”
Diggins has also been instrumental in the development of the players who will try to take her place after she graduates.
“She’s always a competitor, and it helps a lot,” freshman guard Jewell Loyd said after being named national freshman of the year April 4. “She makes everyone around her better, and that’s something I always want to have in my handbook to do as well.”
Diggins is as effusive in praise of her teammates as they are of her.
“I’m so proud of Jewell,” Diggins said. “She’s somebody that I really tried to take under my wing, and just, her growth this year has been so amazing, and she’s done so much for our team and for our program. I know next year that I can kind of pass the baton to her and (juniors) Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa and this team is going to be okay for years to come because of her.”
Loyd says teammates will remember Diggins as a teammate, not as a celebrity or iconic player.
“At my second workout or something me and her were in the gym and she was like, ‘Want to work on your ball handling?’ I was like, ‘Sure, I’ve got nothing better to do,'” Loyd said. “We worked out and joked around and listened to music, and that’s how we really started our bond. And that’s something that I’ll cherish forever, because not a lot of upperclassmen will embrace the freshmen, but she definitely does.”
Diggins had hardly any downtime after her playing career ended. On April 15, just more than a week after her final game, the Tulsa Shock selected her with the No. 3 overall pick in the WNBA Draft.
Diggins made her professional debut in a 72-58 exhibition loss to the Atlanta Dream on May 9 and scored nine points and collected three assists to go along with an elbow to the mouth.
And though she has gained five stitches, 50,000-odd Twitter followers and has changed teams, the message remains.
Contact Vicky Jacobsen at [email protected]