Skylar Diggins had a career high 33 points to guide Notre Dame to their first win in Knoxville. (Photo by Kelly Kline)
Skylar Diggins had a career high 33 points to guide Notre Dame to their first win in Knoxville. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

Weakside cutter confuses Tennessee -- and Diggins seals the deal

January 29, 2013 - 11:25am
(2) Notre Dame 77, (9) Tennessee 67

Let’s see – guard passes across the top of the key to other guard. Passer then cuts to basket using a screen on the weakside elbow.

For coaches and players, this is extremely basic, and I’m guessing that even casual fans can visualize that fundamental offensive maneuver.

In soccer, it’s known as the give-and-go, but Notre Dame adds the tweak of a screen for the cutter, making it a little more difficult to defend.

Unfortunately for Tennessee’s hopes of an upset Monday, the Volunteers were completely baffled by this play, which has been around since Naismith and peach baskets. The Irish produced 10 points on the weakside backcut – and you know, the final score was 77-67.

"They were just running their offense. We watched it all week on film and we knew what they were going to do and I think they are one of the best teams in the country at executing", said Taber Spani about the back door play. "We did not make the adjustments and move quick enough to jump to the ball and to get back on the high side of that cut. They just had lay-ups."

"At times, I thought we played really well, and then we'd give somebody a backdoor cut about six times with different players," said Warlick. "We're just not consistent and we're not there. We can't use the excuse that we're young. We are young but it's just being disciplined and sticking to the game plan."

In short, Holly Warlick got outcoached by Muffet McGraw, as the Tennessee defenders simply didn’t adjust and Notre Dame just kept going back to the same motion. Even worse, the Volunteers would lose track of Skylar Diggins on this play, which seems a lot like forgetting to stop at a red light. Since Diggins was on her way to a career-high 33 points, wouldn’t it make sense to always make sure she was covered? After all, the post screening for her wasn’t even close to being as dangerous (Ariel Braker and Natalie Achonwa combined for 23 fewer points in four more minutes), so why wouldn’t someone switch onto the cutting Diggins? Or even the cutting Madison Cable?

Of course, credit must go to Diggins, who made big play after big play as the Irish won for the first time ever in Knoxville, as she was 13-for-26 from the field with five assists and four steals.  Jewell Loyd was also in double figures for Notre Dame, and she had just 10, but Diggins and good defense proved to be more than enough.

Tennessee’s biggest problem was bad shooting, which is a product of having a limited inside game, especially after Isabelle Harrison went out with a knee injury, which allowed the Irish to play up on the Vols’ several solid three-point shooters without worrying about get hurt on the block.  Most affected was the Vols leading scorer Meighan Simmons who was held to 11 points, well below her 17.6 average.

Sure, Bashaara Graves did some damage (19 points, 13 rebounds) but she was five-of-17 from the field. Notre Dame basically let her shoot while extending the defense to limit Tennessee’s perimeter game.

But speaking of Graves, the freshman put on quite a show. She is athletic, hard-working and skilled, and looks to be a future star with a WNBA future. With 6-5 Mercedes Russell arriving from Oregon next year, Tennessee will be very tough to defend – next year.

This year, though, the Vols are a little too easy for quality teams to guard, especially one that is equally perimeter-oriented. Diggins is a solid defender, but Irish frosh Loyd might well be better, and has just as bright a future as Graves. She had a quiet 10 points and six rebounds, but once Diggins graduates to the WNBA, Loyd will emerge as Notre Dame’s next shining star.

In this one, though, the key was Achonwa, who is pretty much all there is to the Irish inside game. When she went out with her fourth foul with 9:42 left in the game, Notre Dame was ahead by 19, 62-43. When she came back in three minutes later, the Irish were up 10, and with Achonwa overly conscious of her foul situation, Tennessee cut it to five with 3:54 left.

"We really missed her. She's our great rebounder, and we really needed to rebound better today," said McGraw about the time Achonwas spent on the bench in foul trouble. "Kayla did a great job with ten boards, but I thought overall we really missed her. We missed her composure on the offensive side and we missed her overall action. She's a huge part of our team and to have her on the bench for so long was hard for us."

But then Cable passed across the top to Diggins, got a back screen from Achonwa on the weakside elbow, and converted an uncontested layup to blunt the threat. And when Diggins buried a three after a Tennessee miss, the margin was 10 again, and the game was effectively over.

Tennessee, though, remains a very young and very talented team. There are only two seniors (Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams), and just one junior (Meighan Simmons). The youngsters should get better – and eventually they should also figure out how to defend the play that killed them Monday night.