KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The Lady Vols had an all time record of 8-0 against Notre Dame in Knoxville -- at least until Skylar Diggins came to town Monday night and put up a career high 33 points to lead No. 2 Notre Dame past ninth-ranked Tennessee, 77-67.
Diggins scored in every way possible, from behind the arc, from the mid-range, and she attacked the rim, delivered finger rolls, floaters and also dropped five dimes -- it was a complete performance that drew the praise of Tennessee coach Holly Warlick. “We went up against a great team and a great player in Skylar Diggins.”
The win was especially satisfying because it put the Irish in a class of their own -- Notre Dame is the first team ever to defeat both Tennessee and Connecticut in three consecutive seasons (and this year both of those wins came on the road). Now Notre Dame is 19-1, with the only loss coming against top ranked Baylor. Not bad for a team that was “supposed” to be a little down after graduating veteran seniors Natalie Novosel, Devereaux Peters and Brittany Mallory.
The funny thing is, the Irish are quite possibly a better team than they were last year. They are scoring more points, pulling down more rebounds, getting more points from the bench, and are the best free-throw shooting team in the nation.
*Last year Notre Dame averaged 78.9 points per game; this year the Irish are putting up 82.5 points - second in the nation behind Connecticut, at 82.9.
*In 2012, the Irish averaged 40.7 rebounds per game; the 2013 edition is grabbing 44 boards. Notre Dame is currently third in the nation in rebound margin, besting their opponents by 11.9 boards a game. Maryland is the only top 25 team that has a better margin.
*Last year’s bench averaged 19.4 points; the current bench is getting 23.9 points per game.
All of these things along with an 82.1 percentage from the charity stripe make Notre Dame a very, very good team.
So how are the Irish doing it?
Well, starters Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa, are combining for 27.4 points per game, slightly better than Peters and Novosel did last year with 27 ppg. But the new duo is also pulling down 19.2 rebounds per game, much better than the 13.3 by Peters and Novosel. Achonwa has a Big East best 11 double-doubles this year, five them coming against ranked opponents. Meanwhile, McBride shoots 94 percent from the line and has led the team in scoring six times.
“Those are two of the most underrated players in the country,” said Diggins about her teammates. “I think people are just starting to recognize K-Mac and Natalie and what they do -- they are so crucial to our team.”
“I think Natalie Onchonwa has had a phenomenal year, I think Kayla McBride has had a phenomenal year and of course Skylar is playing the best basketball of her career” added head coach Muffett McGraw. “When you have those three veterans who came back -- and they knew we lost a lot in Peters and Novosel, so they knew they had to do more -- and they came in right from the first and were doing it.”
Natalie Achonwa is the leading rebounder for the Fighting Irish and the second best rebounder in the Big East at 9.3 per game. (Photo by Kelly Kline)
But the real X-factor has been freshman Jewell Loyd, who has earned a spot in starting lineup and is averaging 12.6 points per game, more than double Brittney Mallory’s 5.8 average from a year ago. "She has definitely come along a lot faster and gotten a lot better defensively than we had imagined,” said McGraw. “She came in and had a lot to learn defensively but wanted to learn. She took a lot of pride in being the best defender. Offensively she’s pretty gifted, but she’s still growing and learning like a sponge.”
Loyd has twice led Notre Dame in scoring, and not just against some cupcakes, but against ranked opponents UCLA and Baylor. She’s been the Big East rookie of the week three times and is also grabbing 5.4 rebounds per game.
Freshman Jewell Loyd is averaging 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.8 assist per game for the Irish. (Photo by Kelly Kline)
McGraw says the statistic that she’s most impressed with is the rebounding. After losing last year’s national championship game to Baylor, McGraw says she personally challenged the team to get better on the boards. “I think the better rebounding is surprising -- they really rose to the challenge.”
She’s also pleasantly surprised by the bench. “The bench is stepping up. You have Michaela Mabrey coming in and making threes and Madison Cable is a great player and I think Ariel Braker is a little bit of an unsung hero for us. We have a lot of people contributing in a lot of ways.”
But McGraw is not ready to say this team is better than last year's. “No, no”, she said to that notion. “I think last year we knew we could score, Natalie Norvosel could get to the free throw line, and Devereaux was going to block shots and rebound. We don’t really have the shotblocker this year, so we have to rely on better team defense. We’re a little bit unproven on the bench and we’re younger -- last year we had veterans subbing.”
McGraw says her team has to become more automatic on offense and has to get much better defensively to begin to compare to the 2012 edition that went 35-4 overall. Last year’s team led the nation in steals and was able to get more offense out of the press. Currently, the Irish give up a rather high 57 points a game -- to put that in perspective, UConn leads the nation in scoring defense allowing just 46.7 points per game, Stanford is 31st in the nation at 53.1, and Baylor is 33rd at 53.2. Notre Dame isn’t even in the top 50.
But then again, UConn led the nation in scoring and scoring defense last year and Notre Dame beat the Huskies three times. Sometimes it’s all out heart and desire that determine a game, a trait that Diggins has perfected. “Skylar’s will and mental toughness are contagious,” said McGraw.
Diggins also has a slightly better opinion of her this year's edition of the Fighting Irish than McGraw. "We are shooting free throws better, we are attacking more," she said. "It’s pretty similar as far as getting out in transition. We just had a more experienced team last year, but I think this team is faster, we’ve got more guards, they take more risks and they’ve bought into coaches' philosophy. We’ve got a lot of things to work on, but I think we have the potential to do even bigger things than last year.”
Hmm, what can be bigger than making it to the national championship game? Yes, Diggins is suggesting her team can win it all.
If they do, even McGraw will have to admit the 2012-13 squad is better than last year's.
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