Oct. 20, 2011
NEW YORK – For the first time in its 17-year membership in the BIG EAST Conference, Notre Dame has been selected as the outright No. 1 team in the annual BIG EAST preseason women’s basketball poll, according to a vote of the league’s 16 head coaches released Thursday morning during the 2011-12 BIG EAST Women’s Basketball Media Day at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York City.
In addition, Notre Dame junior guard Skylar Diggins (South Bend, Ind./Washington) was chosen as the BIG EAST Preseason Player of the Year, becoming just the second Fighting Irish player to earn that honor, and the first since fellow South Bend Washington High School graduate and Notre Dame All-American Jacqueline Batteast did so prior to her senior season (2004-05).
Diggins also joined a pair of her teammates — senior guard Natalie Novosel (Lexington, Ky./Lexington Catholic) and fifth-year senior forward Devereaux Peters (Chicago, Ill./Fenwick) — on the Preseason All-BIG EAST Team, with Novosel and Peters making the preseason squad for the first time, while Diggins was a unanimous choice for the preseason all-conference team for the second consecutive year. Notre Dame’s three Preseason All-BIG EAST honorees (who also have been named preseason candidates for this year’s Wade Trophy and Wooden Award, both of which go to the national player of the year) were more than any school, with three others having two selections (Connecticut had a third player earn honorable mention status).
In the closest vote since Notre Dame shared top honors with Connecticut in the 2002-03 BIG EAST preseason poll, the Fighting Irish picked up 219 points and nine first-place votes in the balloting (coaches are not permitted to select their own teams), edging out Connecticut, which collected the remaining seven first-place votes and finished with 216 points. Louisville (191 points) was chosen third, while Rutgers (176 points) finished a close fourth ahead of Georgetown (175 points).
Notre Dame has four starters and nine monogram winners returning for the program’s 35th season in 2010-11, joined by a three-player freshman class that has been ranked as high as ninth in the country by some media outlets. The Fighting Irish are coming off a 31-8 season that saw them advance to the NCAA national championship game for the second time in school history and reach the NCAA Women’s Final Four for the third time. Notre Dame ended the season ranked No. 2 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll (taken after the NCAA Championship) and No. 9 in the Associated Press poll (taken before the NCAA Championship).
“It’s good for the league having a team other than Connecticut be number one in the preseason,” Fighting Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said. “It shows there is some parity in the league. I think there are a few teams that could win it, so it’s exciting for the league.”
“This is a great honor winning preseason player of the year,” Diggins said. “They could have picked six or seven players and they would have been worthy of the honor. The great thing about the BIG EAST is that we have so many great players in it.
“It’s so close, you have great teams, UConn, Louisville, Georgetown,” Diggins added. “It’s so hard to rate the BIG EAST because there are so many great teams.”
Diggins put together one of the finest sophomore seasons in Notre Dame women’s basketball history in 2010-11 while sparking the Fighting Irish to their second NCAA title game berth and third NCAA Women’s Final Four appearance. The crafty southpaw made a nearly-seamless transition to the point guard position, ranking among the top 15 in the BIG EAST in scoring (15.0 ppg.), assists (team-high 4.8 apg.) and steals (1.9 spg.), posting career highs in all three areas. What’s more, her 585 total points and 186 total assists were the second-most ever accrued by a Notre Dame sophomore — Katryna Gaither scored 590 points in 1994-95, while Mary Gavin dished out 205 assists in 1985-86 — and her 75 steals were fourth on the Fighting Irish sophomore charts (just eight off the school record), while her 1,226 total minutes were just one shy of Beth Morgan’s school record set in 1996-97.
A State Farm Coaches’ All-America and third-team Associated Press All-America selection last year, Diggins also ranked second on the team with 32 double-digit scoring games, leading the squad in scoring 14 times and rolling up 10 20-point outings, including the last three NCAA Championship games against Tennessee (24), Connecticut (season-high 28) and Texas A&M (23). She added at least five assists in 22 different games (after having seven five-assist games her entire freshman season), capped by a career-high 12 assists against Oklahoma in the NCAA Dayton Regional semifinal, the most helpers ever for a Fighting Irish player in the NCAA tournament, and most in any game since 2000.
A unanimous first-team all-BIG EAST selection, the NCAA Dayton Regional Most Outstanding Player and a member of the NCAA Women’s Final Four All-Tournament Team, as well as being a finalist for the three major national player-of-the-year awards (Wooden Award, Wade Trophy, Naismith Trophy) and the Nancy Lieberman Award (top point guard), Diggins also made history in that regional final win over Tennessee, becoming just the second Notre Dame player to score 1,000 career points in less than two seasons with the Fighting Irish (Morgan had exactly 1,000 points at the end of her sophomore season of 1994-95), and doing so in 72 games, tying for the fourth-fastest run to the scoring millennium in program history. Diggins currently ranks 24th on Notre Dame’s all-time scoring list with 1,069 points.
Meanwhile, Novosel was easily one of the nation’s most improved players in 2010-11, nabbing State Farm Coaches’ honorable mention All-America and first-team all-BIG EAST laurels, as well as the BIG EAST’s Most Improved Player award, after more than tripling her scoring average from a year ago from 5.0 points to a team-high 15.1 points per game. She also scored in double figures a team-best 33 times, the second-highest single-season total in school history (Gaither had 37 double-digit games in 1996-97) and nearly doubled her combined total of 17 from her first two years. What’s more, Novosel had seven 20-point games (her career high entering the season was 19 points) and posted a team-best .413 three-point percentage, in addition to being second on the squad in steals (tied-1.9 spg.) and third in assists (1.9 apg.).
In 2010-11, Novosel set a new school record with 183 free throws made and 39 games started (tying with Peters and Becca Bruszewski), while her 232 free throw attempts were second-most in school history. In addition, she placed among the top 10 on the program’s single-season charts for total points (7th – 588) and minutes played (9th – 1,102).
Peters also enjoyed her finest season at Notre Dame in 2010-11, having fully recovered from a pair of knee injuries earlier in her career. Peters set new career highs in virtually every category, ranking third on the team in scoring (11.9 ppg.) and tops in double-doubles (10), rebounding (7.5 rpg.), field goal percentage (.593), and blocked shots (1.7 bpg.), not to mention fourth in steals (1.7 spg.). Furthermore, she placed fifth in the country in field goal percentage, and ranked among the BIG EAST leaders in scoring (22nd), rebounding (6th), field goal percentage (2nd), blocked shots (4th) and double-doubles (2nd). As if that weren’t enough, she was one of just two players in the nation to record at least 60 blocks and 60 steals last season (she had 68 blocks and 66 steals), joining Illinois’ Karisma Penn (78/62) in that select company.
Like Novosel, Peters was named a State Farm Coaches’ honorable mention All-America and first-team all-BIG EAST selection in 2010-11, while also taking home BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Year honors. She scored in double figures 25 times and tied the school record by starting all 39 games during Notre Dame’s run to the NCAA national championship game. In that title clash against Texas A&M, Peters rang up a double-double with 21 points (on 8-of-10 shooting) and a game-high 11 rebounds, securing her place on the NCAA Women’s Final Four All-Tournament Team.
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— ND —