This past week was not ideal for Skylar Diggins. The days leading up to her last NCAA tournament also didn't yield the ideal first-round game.
The Notre Dame All-American senior point guard battled an illness and missed a couple of practices earlier in the week before spending much of Sunday's first half chasing (and often not catching) UT-Martin's diminutive point guard Heather Butler.
Butler had a career game. Diggins finished with some pretty modest numbers (10 points, six assists, 3-for-8 shooting), but got what she really needed -- a 13th career NCAA tournament win. After some early angst, Notre Dame's physical dominance took over in a 97-64 victory in Iowa City.
This didn't have to be Diggins' game because the 5-foot-5 Butler isn't the only diminutive Skyhawk. The size differential between the two clubs was significant and Notre Dame took full advantage, dominating the paint and glass. At one point, the Irish rebounded eight of their first 10 misses and finished with an astonishing 44-9 overall rebounding advantage.
Diggins did what she often does -- execute the team's game. Notre Dame's best offense came when Diggins was the facilitator. Kayla McBride, Natalie Ochonwa and Jewel Loyd were the Irish players with the biggest mismatches, so that's where the ball went.
On their first possession, Diggins fired a cross-court pass to McBride for an open jump shot. The next time down, Diggins made a perfect lob to Loyd for a layup. Diggins wasn't scoring, but she was in control of the offense, as Notre Dame opened the game with eight baskets and six assists. McBride and Loyd combined for 49 points on 20-of-28 shooting, and most of the shots were open and easy. Ochonwa had 16 points.
Diggins has to be satisfied to advance to the second round, but Butler's performance against her may just be the thing to keep the competitive fire blazing. Butler spent much of the first half dribbling around, cutting behind and shooting over Diggins, who struggled with Butler's quickness and aggressiveness. Butler needed 30 shots to get there, but did score 37 of UT-Martin's 64 points and provided much of the game's entertainment.
Diggins wasn't at a complete loss on defense. Soon after the Skyhawks pulled within seven points at 38-31, the Notre Dame senior made a steal and went in for the layup as part of an 11-0 run to end the half and, essentially, put the game away.
It was the kind of big play Diggins makes in big games; if Notre Dame is to go far in this tournament, it likely will not be her last.