Notre Dame notches first win in Knoxville
After viewing the film "The Impossible" (family struggles to survive/reunite after the 2004 tsunami) and a major tearjerker "Downton Abbey" episode (no spoilers for you stragglers who are still in the dark), I figured I did enough blubbering over the weekend.
So I was really hoping for a great, old-fashioned, fun, competitive, down-to-the-wire basketball game on Monday night. Well we almost got that.
Let's say this of the Skylar Diggins Show versus last Monday's Kelly Faris Show: At least it was compelling enough for hoops fans to want to watch Notre Dame-Tennessee until the very end, which could not be said for UConn’s dismantling of Duke.
The Irish further solidified their No. 2 ranking and added to the all-important "body of work" with their 77-67 victory at No. 9 Tennessee. Diggins had a career-high 33 points, plus 5 assists and 4 steals. And every time Notre Dame needed a big play on offense or defense, Diggins either made it herself, or helped her teammates do it.
It was a virtuoso performance by Diggins, who is showing her mettle in an impressive way as she heads down the stretch of her senior season. Notre Dame has won 14 consecutive games since its only loss of the season, Dec. 5 against Baylor. Diggins was 4-of-19 from the field for eight points in that game, and was red-eyed in disappointment after it.
Since then, she has averaged 17.8 points and put the kibosh on any chatter that she might not actually be one of the WNBA's top three draft picks in April. Diggins is showing the maturity and leadership that you'd expect from a player who has taken so much on her shoulders.
Diggins' big moments and her consistency in Monday's game were in contrast to the Tennessee guard duo of Meighan Simmons and Ariel Massengale. They combined for 14 points and 11 assists, which were not big-enough numbers against this strong of a foe.
Plus, like most of the rest of the Lady Vols, they didn't shoot well. Tennessee made 22 of 66 shots from the field, and neither defended nor rebounded well enough to offset that.
Tennessee prevailed on the boards 47-42, but when your offense goes on the kind of dry spells that the Lady Vols did, you need a bigger rebounding margin than that.
On a night when the school honored head coach emeritus Pat Summitt with a banner, some of her greatest past players were in attendance. They watched as Notre Dame did what the Irish never could do when the likes of Michelle Marciniak (the Irish transfer), Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker were wearing orange: To wit, beat Tennessee.
The Irish started their series 0-20 against the Lady Vols, with the breakthrough finally coming in the 2011 Elite Eight. Last season, the Irish made it two in a row versus Tennessee with a win at Notre Dame. Monday's game was the first Irish victory in Knoxville, Tenn.
The Lady Vols now have some things to work on and some things to worry about. The latter -- health/depth -- especially involves sophomore forward Isabelle Harrison, who came into the game with some knee worries and exited in the first half with more of them as she had to be helped off the court. Tennessee really can’t afford to lose any more players, but the Lady Vols will have to find a way to adjust if Harrison is out a significant time.
Tennessee is still atop the SEC; there are nine games left in the regular season and the Lady Vols' toughest matchups most likely will come Feb. 28 against Texas A&M and March 3 at Kentucky.
The biggest plus for Tennessee on Monday was that the game had the look of a potential blowout during the second half, but it didn't turn out that way. The Lady Vols fought back with the kind of hustle that reminded you of Tennessee teams of old. But Diggins shut the door by reminding everybody that she is one of the best players in the women's college game right now.
And for Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who banged her head against the orange wall so many times, this recent "mastery" over Tennessee must feel good. Yes, she has Diggins. But considering that Notre Dame lost three starters from last season's NCAA runner-up team, McGraw has to be one of the top names in the discussion of national coach of the year.
Will the Irish face any real challenges again until their regular-season finale March 4 against UConn? Notre Dame still has to travel to Villanova and DePaul, plus host Louisville and Syracuse. Those four teams are in the top half of the Big East.
But the Irish know they are in the hunt again for the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and that awareness might provide them extra protection against overlooking anyone, or having UConn on the brain.
Until, that is, it really is time for them to think of the Huskies again.