Skylar Diggins exits stage as UConn advances to title game
NEW ORLEANS -- Old stars leave. New stars enter. This is the nature of college basketball, and on Sunday night in New Orleans, the best player in Notre Dame history ceded the Final Four stage to the most touted player to enter Connecticut in years.
Breanna Stewart, a shot-blocking 6-foot-4 freshman forward with an athletic inside-outside game that resembles Kevin Love's, scored a career-high 29 points on 10-of-16 shooting, including four three-point field goals. It was a coming-of-age of performance against her program's most bitter rival, and it propelled UConn to an 83-65 win over Notre Dame in the national semifinals. After three losses to the Irish this season, UConn won the only game that mattered in 2013.
Connecticut's win ended the career of senior point guard Skylar Diggins, a wildly popular figure in women's basketball who led Notre Dame to a pair of title games and three consecutive Final Fours. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw called Diggins the most important recruit in the history of the women's basketball program, and no one will offer a counterargument. Notre Dame was 130-20 with Diggins wearing the Irish uniform, and she leaves South Bend as the school's all-time leading scorer with 2,537 points. She was also the first women's player in school history to compile 2,000 points, 500 rebounds and 500 assists. Her teams were 31-13 against AP Top 25 teams and 16-11 against Top 10.
"We were a Sweet Sixteen team before she came here, and suddenly, we became a Final Four team," said McGraw, teary-eyed in the Notre Dame locker room. "That changes the perspective nationally. Certainly, she is the main focus behind that. I hope there's another one out there, but I think she's one in a million."
There was a moment Sunday night where you felt the torch passing. The Huskies were coming hard, finally executing against the Irish as they had not in three previous games, and Stewart launched a successful three-pointer from the top of the key to put UConn up 56-43 with 10:43 left. The freshman stared at the flight of the ball as it headed toward the basket, and if you watched Stewart in the moment the ball slithered down the net, she smiled sweetly, as if she had found her favorite pillow.
It has not been an easy season for Stewart, tagged with expectations of being the next in a long line of UConn greats. Prior to the season, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma predicted she would end up as the greatest player in the history of the program and what relief it must have been to deliver her biggest game on the biggest stage yet. "This is what we knew was in her," said UConn senior guard Kelly Faris. "This is what we saw from the beginning of the year. Everybody goes through their little lapses or issues, whatever they may be. This is what we wanted her to get back to. This is how she plays basketball. It's how she's always played basketball. So you guys are just kind of starting to get a glimpse of what we knew that she had."
Stewart exited the game with 1:21 left and UConn leading by 17. Diggins exited a minute later. The Notre Dame guard slapped hands with teammates and headed to the end of her bench. She wrapped her neck in a towel as the crowd chanted "UCONN-HUSKIES, UCONN-HUSKIES." Upon the end of the game, as Stewart was mobbed, Diggins headed to end of the Notre Dame line to exchange handshakes with UConn. When Auriemma found himself face to face with her, he pulled her aside for an extended conversation. "He just said, don't let this game define my legacy," Diggins said. "He told me that he feels like I've done more for the sport than some people who won four national championships. He just told me that I've done a lot for the game of basketball and I had a great career."
Diggins kept walking. She hugged Faris, with whom she had battled more a than dozen times in college as well as in high school in Indiana, and hugged UConn junior guard Bria Hartley, who she knows from international basketball. The line kept moving and at one point Diggins and Stewart interacted, but it was brief, just a quick slap of congratulations. The Notre Dame point guard was then grabbed by ESPN, and after the interview, she headed down the tunnel, waving to Irish fans. By then the Bristol network was interviewing Stewart. On to the next one.
At the news conference following the game, Diggins broke down at the podium as she thanked fans in her hometown of South Bend. She then walked to the locker room, composed herself, and answered questions from a handful of reporters. "I want people to say she was a leader, she was competitive, she loved the university and the city of South Bend like no other," Diggins said, when asked how she wanted to be remembered. "She loved her family, worked hard on the court, and was somebody that was fun to watch and fun to be around. A winner."
• Fifth-seeded Louisville is the lowest seed ever to reach the title game, an incredible run that includes slaying Baylor (a No. 1), Tennessee (a No. 2) and a 64-57 win over second-seeded Cal in the first semifinal game. The Cardinals don't not rank in the top 10 of any stat category in women's basketball, but during this tournament they have shot exceptionally well, especially from three-point range. The problem for the Cardinals is that UConn holds teams to 28.8-percent shooting from three-point range. The looks won't be easy on Tuesday night.
• Louisville junior guard Antonia Slaughter has a jumper that looks like something out of a grainy 1950s basketball film. Her release is slow and her arc is high, but she was deadly Sunday night. Against Cal, Slaughter was 6-of-10 from three-point range, a record for a women's Final Four game. In her last four games, Slaughter has made 22 three-pointers. She's a big X-factor on Tuesday night.
• Louisville outworked Cal in the second half—give Cal's players credit for honesty after the game. "We just got outplayed," said Cal sophomore point guard Brittany Boyd. "It just seemed like they wanted it a little more. We had turnovers and were kind of dropping our heads. We were getting down on ourselves a little bit when we should have been picking ourselves up and staying motivated."
• Stewart has been a different player since the start of the Big East Tournament. What changed for the freshman? "She's gotten stronger mentally," Auriemma said. "I think she's gotten stronger emotionally. Stewy really takes things to heart and she puts a lot of pressure on herself. And when she wasn't playing well, it got into her pretty severely and she let it affect her. She wasn't strong enough mentally and strong enough emotionally to just kind of put it aside. And after the Big East championship game -- or I should say after the end of the regular season -- there was a renewed almost kind of, 'I'm not going to settle for this anymore. I'm not going to allow myself to feel like this anymore.'"
• Notre Dame's execution was awful during the first half as Diggins, fellow All-America guard Kayla McBride and freshman guard Jewell Loyd were 10-of-28 from the field. UConn led 39-29 at halftime. "I didn't feel good about it because we weren't executing anything," McGraw said. "We weren't running our stuff. I thought we forced some things and over-dribbled a little bit. We're a really good passing team, and I don't think we moved the ball. We missed some people that were open."
• The turnaround time for WNBA-eligible players is short, and Diggins will have to start preparing for the April 15 draft, including finding representation. She is expected to go third overall to Tulsa. "I haven't given it any thought yet," she said. "I guess we'll see. I think I just have to see how I feel the next couple of days. I really don't have a choice. The draft is in a week and I have to start preparing the mindset, with agents and all that stuff I wasn't even thinking about." Cal senior guard Layshia Clarendon finished with 17 points and played all 40 minutes. She has a beautiful mid-range game -- she reminds me of Rip Hamilton -- and her performance during the tournament has helped her stock among WNBA teams.
• Auriemma called Diggins the best opponent his UConn teams have ever faced. "You know, the ironic thing about it is that if you check Skylar's shooting percentage and all that stuff against us, it's not that great, including tonight. But what makes her who she is is that invariably, whenever there's a time where she has to get a three, she gets one. Whenever she needs to get in the lane and get an assist, she gets one. Whenever she has to get a steal, she'll get the two that decide the game. She just has that uncanny ability to capture the moment. If they weren't in our league, she would just be another player that beat Connecticut. But because they're in our league and we played them so many times the last couple of years and they've had so much success against us, I would say there hasn't been an opponent that we played against that's had more success against us than she's had. For sure."
• The attendance for the semifinal games was announced at 17,545, but there were swaths of empty seats in the upper deck at the New Orleans Arena. Given the quality of the teams here, it was a disappointing look for the sport.