NORFOLK, Va. - Notre Dame briefly experienced life without Skylar Diggins Tuesday night, and let's just say they hope they won't have to worry about that again until next season.
Early foul trouble limited the top-seeded Fighting Irish's star point guard in the first half of the Norfolk Regional final against No. 2 Duke, and the result was a discombobulated opening 20 minutes. When it was done, head coach Muffet McGraw told the group it could not have played worse.
Diggins came out ready to roll after the break, though, and the Fighting Irish looked like themselves again - confident, dynamic and a bit too explosive for the feisty Blue Devils.
A resurgent Notre Dame (35-1) erupted for 56 second-half points to wipe out a six-point halftime deficit and surge past the Blue Devils 87-76. Diggins, who earned the tournament's most outstanding player honors, finished with 24 points and 9 assists, Natalie Achonwa went for 17 points and 13 rebounds, Kayla McBride chipped in 18 points and Jewell Loyd added 17 points for the Fighting Irish, who notched 25 assists on 29 field goals to roar into the Final Four for the third straight year.
"I think it's a phenomenal accomplishment for this group," McGraw said. "This junior class knows nothing else but going to the Final Four. I don't know if people realize how hard it is to get back every year."
As expected, Diggins was the difference-maker, scoring and setting up her teammates with equal aplomb. For all of the star point guard's acclaim and celebrity, Notre Dame is a true team in every sense, and no one expresses this sentiment more than Diggins herself.
That said, there is no denying Diggins' singular ability to elevate the play of those around her, and perhaps no game captured this better than Tuesday's regional final. Consider the following stat: Duke outscored Notre Dame 17-9 when Diggins wasn't on the floor; Notre Dame outscored Duke 78-59 when she was.
"She's the best point guard in the country," McBride said. "She changes the game with everything that she does. If she goes off the court for 30 seconds, it changes the game. Even in practice, you want her on your team. She is that much of an impact player."
Skylar Diggins cuts down the nets after guiding the Irish to a come from behind win over Duke in the Norfolk Region Championship. (Photo by Teri Priebe)
Tuesday's victory also set up Round Four against Connecticut - Notre Dame scored narrow victories in each of the first three - in the national semifinals Sunday in New Orleans. But neither McGraw nor the players were ready to open the discussion on the topic.
"We just want to celebrate this," Diggins said.
Indeed, there was plenty to celebrate. The victory was the Fighting Irish's school-record 30th straight. It improved Notre Dame to 15-1 in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed. The 35 wins ties the school record. And the decision moved the Fighting Irish into the Final Four for the fifth time overall.
It's not as though Duke (33-3) didn't make the winners work for it, though, particularly throughout a first half during which they seized command with 13-0 run and led by as many as nine points. A turning point came at the 15:50 mark, when Diggins was whistled for her second foul and had to take a seat on the Notre Dame bench. The Fighting Irish led 8-4 at the time. Diggins sat until the 8:37 mark, then promptly had her first shot upon her return rejected by Richa Jackson on a play that led to an Elizabeth Williams putback.
That boosted Duke's lead to 20-17, and the Blue Devils would score the next six points before the Fighting Irish finally responded with a Jewel Loyd jumper. Diggins, who shot well from the perimeter in both games in Norfolk, heated up and splashed three 3-pointers over a 2:16 span. Duke matched Notre Dame shot for shot, though, and when Chloe Wells knocked down a triple with two seconds remaining, the Blue Devils sprinted into the locker room up 37-31.
Once play resumed, however, it was Duke's point guard that was plagued by foul problems. Freshman Alexis Jones, who also picked up two fouls in the first half, was tagged with her third a mere 51 seconds into the second. Less than four minutes later, she collected foul number four.
A more aggressive Notre Dame, meanwhile, began operating in the selfless, brutally efficient manner that has become its trademark. The combination of Notre Dame's assertiveness and Duke's reticence proved fatal to the Blue Devils.
"Once Alexis Jones went out of the game, we stopped focusing on defensive stops," Duke center Elizabeth Williams said. "It turned into a game of trading buckets and that is not the type of game we wanted to be in. For us, I think we just lost a little bit of focus."
Duke's persistent foul trouble forced the Blue Devils out of their man-to-man defense and into a zone. Led by Diggins, the Fighting Irish carved the zone up. Ariel Baker's layup with 16:25 to play wiped out Duke's final lead, tied things at 42 and kicked off a 10-0 Notre Dame spurt.
The Blue Devils continued hanging in there and were still within seven with just under six minutes to go. But the Fighting Irish took off again, as back-to-back 3-pointers by Loyd and McBride closed out a 9-0 run that boosted Notre Dame's edge to an overwhelming 16 points with less than three minutes to go.
"I thought it was a phenomenal second half," McGraw said. "I felt like we really came out of the locker room with a lot more energy and intensity. Really, really pleased with the second half, much more like we had hoped would happen the whole game."
Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie, meanwhile, lamented the fact that the Blue Devils couldn't build on its first-half effort.
"The thing that really bugged me was the 11 assists and 21 turnovers," she said. "That's not what we are about and that's unfortunate. This one should stick with us for a long time."
Tricia Liston led Duke with 19 points, and Haley Peters added 15. But Williams, who was named an Associated Press third-team All-American earlier Tuesday, managed just eight points and six rebounds in 35 minutes. And Jones, who has performed so brilliantly in relief of injured All-American Chelsea Gray, had nine points and seven turnovers in 26 foul-plagued minutes.
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