Jan. 28, 2013
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Skylar Diggins wouldn’t allow Notre Dame to lose.
On a night when Tennessee was honoring one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history, Diggins delivered one of the best performances of her brilliant career. The senior guard scored a career-high 33 points as No. 2 Notre Dame beat the ninth-ranked Lady Vols 77-67 for its 14th straight victory.
Diggins’ big performance spoiled Tennessee’s celebration of former Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt, who had a banner raised in her honor at Thompson-Boling Arena before the game. The announced crowd of 13,556 included former Lady Vols greats Tamika Catchings, Chamique Holdsclaw, Michelle Marciniak and Candace Parker.
“This is one of the toughest places to play with all those fans out there,” Diggins said. “It was a great moment for Coach Summitt, with all those players like Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings on the sidelines. It was a very emotional night tonight, and I thought we did a good job of handling it because they had a lot to play for.”
Diggins took over the game early in the first half to put the Irish ahead. She dominated on both ends of the floor again early in the second half as Notre Dame built a 19-point lead. After Tennessee cut the margin to five in the closing minutes, Diggins responded once again.
“She had a phenomenal game. … She’s shooting the ball extremely well,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “She shot 50 percent from the field (13 of 26) against a great defense, managed the game, ran the team. Fourth game in nine days, I thought we looked a little tired in stretches at the end, and I really didn’t want to take her out to even give her a quick breath. She really gutted it out for 40 minutes with intense pressure on the ball.”
Diggins helped Notre Dame become the first team ever to beat both Connecticut and Tennessee in three consecutive seasons. The Irish won 73-72 at Connecticut on Jan. 5.
After losing its first 20 meetings in this series, the Irish beat the Lady Vols in a 2011 regional final and trounced Tennessee 72-44 last season. That 72-44 result represented Tennessee’s lowest point total and its second-most lopsided loss in Summitt’s 38-year tenure.
The Lady Vols (16-4) wanted to avenge that loss while also honoring Summitt, whose 1,098-208 career record gives her the most wins of any Division I men’s or women’s basketball coach ever. Summitt stepped down in April after announcing in 2011 that she has early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
“We went up against a great team and a great player in Skylar Diggins,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “We battled. When we learn to maintain a level of play for us, we’re going to be very good. We just get in some lulls and some valleys.”
Bashaara Graves had 19 points and 13 rebounds for Tennessee, which had won its last nine games. Taber Spani added 12 points and Meighan Simmons had 11 points. Jewell Loyd had 10 points for Notre Dame, while Kayla McBride had nine points and 10 rebounds.
Tennessee used the emotion of the pregame ceremony for Summitt to take an early 7-2 lead, but the Irish answered with a 12-2 run of their own. Diggins scored 11 points in the first 10 minutes of the game to help the Irish build an eight-point lead.
Notre Dame had chances to build an even bigger advantage.
Simmons, who entered the night averaging a team-high 17.6 points per game, picked up two early fouls and played just 11 minutes in the first half. Tennessee’s frontcourt endured a major loss when center Isabelle Harrison took a spill after driving to the basket and had to be helped to the locker room. The Lady Vols had announced before the game that Harrison was playing with a meniscus injury in her left knee.
Warlick had no immediate word after the game on the condition of Harrison, who didn’t return to the game.
“I hope she’s going to be back because we need her,” Warlick said. “She’s a vital part of our program.”
But the Irish didn’t take advantage in the early going and only led 33-29 at the half. Diggins wasn’t getting much help from her teammates, who shot a combined 8 of 30 in the first half.
“I thought the first half we were just kind of running through the motions of our offense,” Diggins said. “It’s almost like we weren’t trusting our offense.”
Diggins then took over the game.
The senior guard scored 12 points in the first seven minutes of the second half. She had six points, three steals, one block and an assist during an 11-0 run that gave the Irish a 16-point lead.
“She played great,” Spani said. “She played fantastic. She hit shots for them. She was their leader emotionally. She willed their team to victory.”
After trailing by as many as 19 points, Tennessee rattled the Irish with a furious rally over the final 10 minutes and cut the lead to 69-64 on Spani’s free throw with 3:54 remaining.
That’s when Diggins took over again.
She found Madison Cable for a layup that got the Irish out of danger. After Spani and Jasmine Jones missed jumpers on Tennessee’s next possession, Diggins sank a 3-pointer to make it a 10-point game.
Notre Dame’s lead wouldn’t drop below eight again. One of the game’s marquee personalities had come through on the big stage once again.
“With all those people out there, it’s great for women’s basketball,” Diggins said. “When you go to college, you dream of playing in games like this.”
— ND —
POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame becomes the first school in the NCAA era (since 1981-82) to defeat both Connecticut and Tennessee on the road in the same season … the Fighting Irish also are the first team to defeat both Connecticut and Tennessee in the same season in three consecutive years (North Carolina did it back-to-back in 2005-06 and 2006-07) … Notre Dame is a combined 8-1 against Connecticut and Tennessee since the 2011 NCAA Dayton Regional final (Elite Eight) game in which the Fighting Irish defeated UT, 73-59 — those eight combined wins are the most by any school’s senior class (for Notre Dame, it’s co-captains and guards Skylar Diggins and Kaila Turner) against those two traditional women’s basketball powers in the past 25 seasons … the Diggins/Turner senior class has helped Notre Dame to 114 wins in their career, three shy of the school record set by the Class of 2012 … the Fighting Irish earn their third consecutive series win over Tennessee (all by double digits) and post their first victory in nine trips to Knoxville … Notre Dame actually did have one prior victory at Thompson-Boling Arena, defeating New Mexico, 58-44 in the first round of the 2002 NCAA Championship (Midwest Region) … the Fighting Irish are 6-1 against ranked opponents this season … Notre Dame extends its winning streak to 14 games, still the sixth-longest in school history, and improves to 19-1, matching the second-best 20-game record in program annals … the Fighting Irish also stretched their school-record regular season road winning streak to 17 games (and 22 of their last 27 overall), having not tasted defeat in a regular season road game since Nov. 20, 2011 (94-81 at Baylor in the Preseason WNIT championship game) … Notre Dame has won nine of its last 10 games against Southeastern Conference opponents (2-0 this season after also defeating Texas A&M, 83-74 on Dec. 21 in the World Vision Classic championship game in Las Vegas) … the Fighting Irish earn their first road win over an SEC opponent since Dec. 30, 2008, when they rallied from 18 points behind in the second half to edge No. 20/19 Vanderbilt, 59-57 at Memorial Gym in Nashville, Tenn. … Diggins’ 33 points were not only a career high (previous was 32 against West Virginia on Feb. 12, 2012, at Purcell Pavilion), but tied for the 10th-highest single-game scoring total by a Notre Dame player in the program’s 36-year history — and most since March 25, 2008, when Charel Allen scored 35 points in a 79-75 overtime win over Oklahoma in the second round of the NCAA Championship (Oklahoma City Region) in West Lafayette, Ind. … Diggins’ 33 points are tied for the third-most by a Fighting Irish player in a road game, and most since Jan. 30, 1999, when Ruth Riley scored a school-record 41 points in a 97-59 win at Providence … Diggins posted her third career 30-point game (she also had 31 against Vermont on March 23, 2010, in an NCAA second-round game at Purcell Pavilion), becoming the seventh Notre Dame women’s basketball player to top 30 points in a game at least three times in her career (first since Alicia Ratay’s trio of 30-point games from 1999-2003) … Diggins topped 20 points for the fifth time this season and 38th time in her career, passing Riley for third place in school history … Diggins chalked up her 105th double-figure scoring game, one behind Riley for second place in the school record books … with 2,053 career points, Diggins now is 19 points behind Riley for third place on the Notre Dame career scoring list … Diggins tied her career high with 13 made field goals (first set in the 2010 NCAA win over Vermont), while her 26 shot attempts were one back of her personal best in last month’s win over Texas A&M) … in three career games against Tennessee, Diggins is averaging 28.0 points, 4.7 assists and 4.0 steals per game with a .533 field goal percentage, .545 three-point percentage and 1.40 assist/turnover ratio … for the third time this season, the Fighting Irish tied their season high with seven three-pointers … conversely, Notre Dame (which entered play as the nation’s best free throw shooting team at .821, shot a season-low .571 against Tennessee, marking just the third time all season the Fighting Irish failed to connect on at least 70 percent of their free throw attempts … junior guard Kayla McBride grabbed a season-high 10 rebounds, finishing one point away from her third career double-double (first this year) … head coach Muffet McGraw picked up her 698th career win, improving to 698-257 (.731) in 31 seasons on a college sideline, including a 610-216 (.738) record in 26 years at Notre Dame.