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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Diggins Earns Props On and Off the Court

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Photo Caption: Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins (White, No. 5) heads to the hoop in USA Basketball’s 112-53 victory over Brazil Sunday at the World University Games in Shenzhen, China. Diggins, who is playing on the U.S. team alongside Notre Dame teammates Natalie Novosel and Devereaux Peters, as well as top collegians from across the country, posted nine points while passing out five dishes and grabbing six steals in the Americans’ opening day win. As the U.S. heads into the quarterfinals undefeated, Diggins ranks second in the tournament in assists, tied with Australia’s Nicole Hunt at four per game over three games of preliminary-round play; she is also second on the U.S. team (fractionally behind Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne) in scoring with 12 points per game over the same span.

Photo Credit: Courtesy USA Basketball

By Mark Bradford

She’s easily recognized on the court, dishing and driving, whether attired in red, white and blue as she leads Team USA toward the medal stand at the World University Games or in Irish Green as she guided Notre Dame to the national championship game last season. But off the court and out of context, you just might miss her.

Still, if you look closely some night at a local high school dance in Indiana, you just might recognize the face of the DJ spinning the rock-and-roll hits.

SkyDigg is “in Da House.”

Yep, Skylar Diggins, the Notre Dame junior guard, whom one local reporter has dubbed the “Face of College Basketball,” has time between studying, playing basketball, and watching game (after game after game) to jam with the kids as a disc jockey. It is something she has been doing since high school.

But now, things are different.

You see, SkyDigg is now famous.

Not quite one-name notorious, like Michael, or Madonna, or Elton, but famous enough to be sitting in Los Angeles at an NBA game and hear the words, “That’s Skylar Diggins—oh my God.”

Heady words for a pretty down-to-earth Indiana girl.

To be as good as Diggins is, to be in Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi territory, requires a bit of moxie and confidence, and Diggins has loads of both. But there is a fine line between confidence and cockiness, and she is also safely on the good side of that line.

But what do you do when people start recognizing you all over the United States?

Photo Caption: Though Diggins is easy to identify in uniform, glistening with perspiration, she cleans up quite nicely and is now readily recognized by many off the court, from Indiana discos to NBA games in L.A.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Mike Bennett/Lighthouse Imaging

“There are a few reasons people recognize me,” Diggins said in an exclusive interview with Full Court Press. “First is the fact there are lots of fans of women’s basketball. Then they recognize me because of Notre Dame, last year’s tournament championship games, and then Lil Wayne.”

Notre Dame has its own well-oiled publicity machine and they know how to use it. But Diggins “Lil Wayne experience” is an index of what today’s “tweet-fame” is all about.  During the Final Four, the tweeter community was abuzz with a tongue-in-cheek romance between the Irish hoops star and the hip-hop singing sensation. “Kongrats to @skydigg4, my wife. Now bring it home baby,” the rapper, who also wore Diggins’ jersey on stage to a concert in Bloomington, Indiana’s Assembly Hall, tweeted after Notre Dame defeated UConn to take their place in the national title game last April.

How real the virtual “love affair” was or where it will lead is for other websites to worry about, but the fact that Lil Wayne chose to hitch his promotion machine to Diggins is an indicator of just how popular Diggins can be. This type of instant almost tabloid-like success is a first for any female Irish athlete and among the first for any Notre Dame athlete, period, including the universally promoted football team.

To achieve such “star-power” as a sophomore is unheard of on the Irish campus. It has its negatives, of course, as Diggins was the subject of a fake dirty picture rumor later in the spring, a rumor that was quickly dispelled.

So, as the 2011-12 season approaches, staying grounded will be the key to success for Diggins and her team.

Staying grounded is one of the reasons that Diggins is glad she stayed in her home town and chose Notre Dame. She was strongly considering Stanford and, in fact, she counts among her best friends former Stanford star Candice Wiggins, the leading scorer in Cardinal history who now plays professionally for the Minnesota Lynx. However, strong family ties, plus the lure of the opportunity to become a lynchpin for a team that needed one (my words, not hers) kept her within a 10-minute drive of the house she grew up in.

In South Bend, Diggins enjoys plenty of support, including her teammates, head coach Muffet McGraw, and assistant coach Nielle Ivey, whom Diggins calls one of the best point guards she has ever seen. Diggins would need to rely on that group as she struggled through the early season last year: Though Notre Dame won nearly all of its games in that period, the Irish still didn’t seem to be firing on all cylinders and fell just short of the mark in the big ones.

“We just were not comfortable as a team,” Diggins said of that period. “Our big turnaround came against Gonzaga (a December 29 road tournament game that Notre Dame won, 70-61). It was like, all of the sudden, we realized how good we were. We knew how good Devereaux (Peters) was, we knew Brittany Mallory was great, and so on. It was a huge confidence boost.”

Many writers questioned how good Diggins was, particularly over the team’s first 12 games leading up to that turnaround in Spokane. After a sensational freshman campaign, many expected much more of her sophomore season, but in the early going, at least, her numbers seemed pretty average, at least for a superstar. Her occasional standout individual games seemed to come mainly in the team’s losses (e.g., 22 points/five assists in the team’s home loss to UCLA; 18 points/one assist in their road loss at Kentucky; 21 points/five assists in another loss on the road at Baylor), and they were interspersed with some dismal outings against less than sterling squads (e.g., nine points/eight assists in a win over Morehead State; seven points/seven assists in a win over IUPUI; and, just before that lynchpin game at Gonzaga, a personal worst three points and five assists against Valpo).

Some acknowledged the impact of a shift in Diggins’ role from shooter—the team’s primary scoring threat at 13.8 points per game—to facilitator, as she moved to the point and focused on making those around her better. And what the critics did not know was that Diggins—who despite her off nights was still averaging 13.5 points and 4.5 assists in that November-December time span—was cocooning for the big games ahead. By season’s end, Diggins was back at the top of the team’s scoring leaderboard, her 15-point-per-game average trailing Natalie Novosel’s by just a tenth of a point, while Diggins led the team in assists at 4.8 per game. And some of her biggest games came down the stretch, as she showed up with a team-high 24 points, plus four assists and four steals, in Notre Dame’s Elite Eight win over Tennessee; 28 points and six dishes, both team highs in the Irish 72-63 dethronement of UConn in the Final Four; and 23 points (again, a team high), plus three assists in the six-point loss to A&M in the national title game.

“I am a basketball junkie nerd,” Diggins says without being prompted.  Not only is she a basketball junkie nerd, but she studies tapes. I mean she studies tapes. She watches every thing.

“There are tapes where I will just watch Natalie Novosel, just to see where she is with or without the ball. The next thing I will watch is Devereaux, doing the same thing. My goal is to know what they are going to do before they do it. To know them even better than themselves.”

Translating that to the court means having to think. Not only did she have to think about all the film she was digesting, but she was handed the point guard responsibility at the beginning of last season. All of the sudden she was expected to be a point guard who could both make things happen for others and shoot well.

Of course, most players have to think, but only the true students of the game put in the time and effort that is required to think like all five people at the same time. So Diggins’ tape sessions continued, despite carrying an academic load and the expectations of the sellout crowds that became the rule rather than the exception last season.

And it wasn’t just tapes of her own games. Diggins said she watches both male and female players, trying to see how they come off screens, how they work without the ball, just to get open. All the little things that take a good player and make her great.

Diggins doesn’t think she is gifted athletically. “I’m a very hard worker,” she said, “and I have a tremendous will to win. I think it has something to do with being left-handed. It just makes everything a little different.“

Others would beg to disagree—at least when it comes to Diggins’ athletic gifts.

“You know, in the first half you could see that there was going to be a problem guarding her the whole game,” said Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma after the Diggins-led Irish knocked his Huskies out of the pursuit of a third straight national championship. “But we did a pretty decent job on everybody else. And in the second half, we allowed her to get everybody else involved, and then it was not just having to guard Skylar, but it’s the plays that she made for other people. And you know that’s what great players do. They take control of a situation, and she did.”

And as USA Basketball World University Games and Iowa State University head coach Bill Fennelly, the most recent beneficiary of Diggins’ abilities, noted after the Irish star posted game highs of 13 points, four assists and six steals to lead Team USA undefeated into the tournament quarterfinals with an 85-33 rout of Great Britain, Diggins’ hard work and talent evidence themselves on both sides of the basketball.

“Skylar’s on-ball pressure is relentless,” observed Fennelly. “She just totally took them out of their offense and picked them for layups a couple times, too. When you have someone at the point of your defense dictating the pressure and dictating how the game is played, it’s hard for the other guy. Certainly that was the case tonight.”

That special combination of raw talent plus all the thinking and preparation paid off at exactly the right time for the Irish last season. When tournament time came around, Diggins was able to quit thinking and release herself to just playing. It was almost as if, to use a nerd favorite,  the “force” was with her.  After two easy tournament wins in the opening round, Notre Dame excised three goblins from its past in three straight incredible tournament performances.

The first to fall was Oklahoma, the team that had knocked them out of the NCAA Tournament with a 72-77 overtime loss in the Sweet Sixteen he year before. That early exit from the tournament had served as motivation for the Irish throughout the entire 2010-2011 season.

Next to fall was Tennessee, a team that had dismantled Ohio State jet two days prior and team that Notre Dame had never previously beaten.

“That one was for Coach McGraw,” Diggins recalled, as if she were reliving the moment. “Then came UConn, a team that had lost only once in 31 games or something,” Diggins said as her eyes trailed off.

There is a “zone” that players reach where everything goes right and play becomes effortless.  With Diggins playing like everyone knew she could, Notre Dame, as a team, played in that “zone” for three games, plus half of the NCAA championship game against Texas A&M. 

Diggins can barely talk about that second half.

“You know I think that after beating Oklahoma, Tennessee, and UConn, all three teams that we had emotionally pointed toward, we were like, ‘We don’t know these people,’ and I think we let down.”

If the rallying cry last season involved the Sooners, this season, the cry is simply, “15:52.” That is the time at which A&M scored the go-ahead points that would eventually lead them to the 2011 national championship. It will be the chip on Diggins’ shoulder this season.  It is not as if Diggins needs a gimmick to motivate herself.

“My mom taught me how to compete, even though she was only a cheerleader in high school,” Diggins said. “If we play checkers and she loses, she makes us play again.”

Diggins can’t wait to play again. No question her goal is to win the National Championship.

You see, she has been there; she just hasn’t done that yet.

And, like her mother before her, Diggins wants to play again.

In the meantime, her alter-ego SkyDigg will spin a few tunes until it is her time to rock-and-roll again.

Originally published Wed, August 17, 2011

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
10 Ohio State 21-2 11 NR-RV
10 483
11 Tennessee 17-6 8 3 11 476
12 Delaware 20-1 13 NR 12 434
13 Georgetown 18-5 15 11 14 379
14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
15 Nebraska 19-3 18 NR 13 309
16 Rutgers 17-4 14 12 17 372
17 Louisville 17-6 12 9 20 276
18 Gonzaga 21-3 19 NR-RV
19 234
19 Purdue 19-5 17 21 16 222
20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
22 104
24 South Carolina 18-5 NR-RV
NR 24 46
25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
NR 45
Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.