Sky's the limit for Notre Dame

NORFOLK, Va. -- The dances in the middle of the court were complete. Those members of the crowd not clad in green already had begun to drift off into the Norfolk night. But there was one last bit of official business to take care of before Notre Dame left the court for the final time.

By unanimous decision, the announcer intoned, the regional's Most Outstanding Player award went to Skylar Diggins.

Close, but not quite. There wasn't any need to go to the judges on this one. Diggins won by knockout.

Notre Dame is going back to the Final Four, its passage secured with an 87-76 win against Duke. It's the third year in a row the Fighting Irish will be part of the season's final weekend. Do the math and that means there were only two seniors in a joyous but far from raucous locker room after the game who ever ended a season any place but the Final Four.

That is the culture Diggins created, even if it took a little extra work to maintain it Tuesday night. She finished with 24 points, nine assists, five steals and five rebounds, but her contribution went beyond the box score.

She kept her team in the game during a first half in which the top seed looked nothing like itself. She's also the one who helped this team become what it showed itself to be in the second half.

"She is the driving force," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "She is the attitude, the mindset, the relentless attitude, the drive to be the best. And she's got everybody on board."

For almost the entire roster, the Final Four is just the place you go after the Elite Eight. Diggins knows better. Along with fellow senior Kaila Turner, she was a freshman on the team that lost to Oklahoma in the Sweet 16 in 2010.

"I remember I thought we should have won [the title] that year, too," Diggins said.

In the same breath, she quickly gave credit to Oklahoma's Danielle Robinson and Amanda Thompson, the stars of that team. Then she talked about a game in the Virgin Islands the teams played earlier that same season, a game the Fighting Irish won. Of course, she continued, that was right after the Sooners lost Whitney Hand to an injury, so there was that to take into account. The Sooners earned the postseason win, she acknowledged, but when the top seed in the region that year, Nebraska, was knocked out in the same round and the Sooners eventually went on to the Final Four, well, she still can't help but wonder what could have been.

This was all stream of consciousness in response to a question she didn't know was coming. And it was about half an hour after she expended a heck of a lot of energy subduing Duke, one of the bigger, better defensive teams in the country, in what would have been her final college game had a few of her shots or passes gone astray.

Diggins' teammates talk often about not wanting to go against her in practice -- Kayla McBride mentioned as much Tuesday night. It's not just because the odds are they're going to lose; it's because she is going to do anything it takes to win. The only thing worse, it seems, is to be on her team if she loses a scrimmage or a drill, let alone a game.

That is the person who remembers not just losing in the Sweet 16 as a freshman, but every detail and emotion involved in that game and a meaningless game months earlier. The only thing she got wrong was the location of the regular-season game against the Sooners, placing it in the Bahamas instead of the Virgin Islands.

One tropical paradise is as good as another. She was only interested in the basketball court.

"I just remember the determination of our team after that year," Diggins said of her freshman season. "How we felt after that game and how we never wanted to feel that way again. We never wanted to leave the tournament early. We wanted to win all the games we were supposed to win."

The thing is, she thinks she's supposed to win every game she ever plays. It's why she is who she is. And it's why Duke's season is over.

No team has drawn a tougher tournament lot the past four seasons than Duke. A regional finalist in each season, it found its path to the Final Four blocked the past three seasons by, in order, Baylor's Brittney Griner, UConn's Maya Moore and, finally, Stanford's Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike. Drawing Diggins this time was just a continuation of the misery, especially as the Blue Devils were without Chelsea Gray.

But for most of the first half, the underdogs couldn't have written a better script.

With 15:50 remaining in the first half, the game barely getting its feet under it, Diggins picked up her second foul and took a seat on the bench -- much to her displeasure. Other than the four fouls she picked up in a triple-overtime win against Connecticut, she hadn't had more than two fouls in an entire game since Feb. 11. For a brief period, the Fighting Irish held their own without her. But slowly, the offense bogged down against Duke's varied defensive looks. And as shot after shot dropped for Duke's Tricia Liston, her team erased an early deficit and took the lead.

Risking a third foul, McGraw put Diggins in with more than eight minutes to play in the half. The Blue Devils still led by six points at halftime, but three late 3-pointers in quick succession from Diggins kept her team in the game.

She can do that when needed, hit the 3-pointer with a defender close enough to brush her arm on the follow through. She can slip between defenders in the lane and deliver a no-look pass, as she did to Natalie Achonwa as Notre Dame erased the deficit early in the second half. She can stay in a defensive crouch and wait, wait, wait for that one split-second when an opponent's dribble gets a little too far from her body and then pounce, picking the ball clean and racing the other way, as she did to Alexis Jones during that same rally.

But if that's all she did, Notre Dame would be the team most expected when the season began, the kind of young team that might get to a regional final, only to come up a few plays or a few players short.

Part of a trio with McBride and Achonwa who backed up Diggins with 52 combined points, including 37 in the second half, Jewell Loyd was a consistent source of energy on a night when that had to build for most of her teammates. The freshman had 17 points and eight rebounds in 38 minutes but was active beyond those numbers, keeping rebounds alive, chasing down loose balls and finishing lob plays rarely seen in the women's game.

"Jewell can jump out of the gym," Diggins said. "When she is attacking the glass and rebounding, that gives us second-chance opportunities. She is a great energy player. Every time she goes up and gets an alley-oop, it changes the game. Those are momentum plays that get the crowd involved. It gets us excited and energized. She is someone that can change the game with those plays."

And it took the point guard all of a few minutes to figure that out.

"I think my first visit, we played in open gym, she threw me a lob the first day," Loyd said. "She knew I could jump. She trusts me when the ball's in the air, and I trust her to make a good pass -- I mean, she is the point guard.

"First day, it was lob city."

And that is where Diggins had a hand in Tuesday's win beyond all the things she did on the court. Whether tough love or sisterly love, she brought this team along, took a freshman like Loyd under her wing, waited for McBride to feel confident enough to ask for the ball or for a certain play, pushed Achonwa -- and every player on the bench.

"I'm not afraid of her -- most people think she's such an icon, you can't really talk to her," Loyd said. "No, she's not. She's a sister, she's kind. She helps me all the time. That's something you can't just create. It's there from the get-go."

When McGraw told the Irish at halftime they couldn't play much worse, the standard she was holding them to was the one Diggins set. And the senior wasn't about to go out that way. She knows what it feels like to lose too soon.

As her coach said, everyone is on board. And the next stop is New Orleans.

"I really believe that if we play like we know we can play, if we string together 40 good minutes, we'll have the opportunity to get a national championship again," Diggins said. "And that's what, ultimately, we wanted since the beginning of the year."