Diggins denied, but still a winner

NEW ORLEANS -- So many terrific players could relate to how Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins felt Sunday night with her college career at an end and her last chance at a national championship denied.

Players in the past decade such as LSU's Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles. Or Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike, Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen. Or Tennessee's Kara Lawson. Or go back further to the 1990s, and Stanford's Kate Starbird or Virginia's Dawn Staley. Or Auburn's Linda Godby, who played in three consecutive NCAA finals in 1988-90.

They all know what it's like to go to at least three Final Fours, as Diggins did with Notre Dame, and not win a title. In the cases of Fowles and the recent Stanford trio, they all went to the Final Four four times with no championship.

There wasn't a lot of consolation for Diggins in the immediate aftermath of UConn's 83-65 victory over fellow No. 1 seed Notre Dame in the national semifinals at New Orleans Arena. But she knows her sport's history, and understands that some of women's basketball's best have not gotten an NCAA title, but still did some great things just the same.

"Obviously, you want to win a championship every year," Diggins said in a quiet Notre Dame locker room. "But you learn so much in going through it. So many lessons. I am just blessed to have the opportunities these past four years. You look back on it, and [not winning a title] is not going to define my career or be my legacy. Notre Dame is so much bigger than myself. It's about building the program back up to elite status, and this program is going to be good for years to come."

Still, this seems like a too-cruel fate for such a hard-working, upstanding, vibrant personality as Diggins: To have pretty much accomplished everything team-wise -- including two Final Four victories over the rival Huskies -- and still not get an NCAA title.

Consider that in 2011, Diggins helped Notre Dame to its first victory over Tennessee. That came in the Elite Eight, and sent the Fighting Irish to the program's third Final Four, and first since they won the title in 2001. Then in the national semifinals, Notre Dame beat UConn, becoming the first team to defeat both Tennessee and Connecticut in the same NCAA tournament.

But that wasn't enough for the 2011 title -- the Irish still had to face Texas A&M, and lost 76-70 to the Aggies in Indianapolis.

"I'm still not over Texas A&M," Diggins said Sunday night; it retrospect, that was her best chance at winning it all.

Still, that 2011 NCAA tournament really launched Diggins as a Twitter sensation when she was just a sophomore. She became one of the prominent faces of women's college athletics.

Then in 2012, the Irish beat UConn three times, including once again in the national semifinals. But Baylor finished out a perfect season, topping Notre Dame 80-61 in the final in Denver.

After losing three starters from that team, the Irish really weren't expected by most people to make another Final Four run this season. Let alone be a No. 1 seed that had lost only one game up until Sunday night.

Notre Dame's 35-2 season included three victories over UConn, including a dramatic triple-overtime win against the Huskies in Diggins' home finale on March 4. That was the last game she played in South Bend, Ind. And in the news conference after Sunday's loss, Diggins was dry-eyed until she gave a shout-out to the folks back in her hometown.

"I just want to say thank you to all the fans and the city of South Bend … for all the support," Diggins said, her voice breaking as eyes filled with tears. "Thank you, thank you."

Then minutes later in the Irish's locker room, Diggins had composed herself again. She knows she'll be able to reflect on so many fantastic moments. Such as another first she'd helped the Irish accomplish this season: their only Big East tournament championship. Even the 2001 Irish national champions didn't do that.

Notre Dame moves to the ACC next season, and the Irish bring back four of five starters. But the one they lose has defined the program during her career, and joined the Notre Dame pantheon of athletic greats.

"I think she's a champion," Irish coach Muffett McGraw said. "I know we didn't win it, but what she has done for us has been amazing. She leaves Notre Dame as the most celebrated, decorated, and best player ever, and I'm happy for that."

Sunday, though, Diggins didn't have the game she wanted to against UConn. She entered the Final Four averaging 17.3 points and 6.0 assists per game. Against the Huskies, she finished with 10 points and eight assists -- but also had six turnovers and shot 3 of 15 from the field.

Diggins made a couple of spectacular defensive plays; on one, she chased down UConn's Bria Hartley and blocked her layup attempt. But overall, Diggins just couldn't do the damage to the Huskies offensively that Notre Dame needed.

The Irish struggled mightily shooting from the field in the first half (9 of 38), and it didn't get much better in the second (13 of 36). While Breanna Stewart was putting on a 29-point show -- Diggins called the UConn freshman's performance "awesome" -- the Irish really couldn't find a way to counter her.

"Nothing was working," McGraw said. "I think we couldn't get any confidence from executing. We got a couple of back-doors and thought, 'Oh, here we go, we're going to run our stuff.' And then we just crashed and burned.

"We picked up our dribble, didn't use our screens, weren't moving without the ball. We just didn't look like ourselves. And a lot of it was their defense, but a lot of it was us."

The Huskies certainly had revenge on their minds after having lost seven of their previous eight meetings with Notre Dame. Since UConn fully ascended to a national power with its first NCAA title in 1995, no team -- not even Tennessee -- has had a stretch of victories that seemed to frustrate the Huskies as much as has been the case with Notre Dame the past two seasons. That in itself is a big accomplishment for Diggins.

In her first NCAA appearance as a freshman, she lost to Final Four-bound Oklahoma in overtime in the Sweet 16. Since then, it has been three Final Four trips and a level of celebrity and public recognition that no Notre Dame female athlete has ever reached before.

And while her Irish career is over, the WNBA awaits. The draft is April 15, and Diggins is expected to go with the second pick to Chicago or the third pick to Tulsa.

"With such a great season, you hate that it ended like this," Diggins said. "But we have so many more things to smile about. The good outweighs the bad. This is the taste we have in our mouths right now, but it's temporary. Then you get back to a mindset where you have to start thinking about next year. Or what's next.

"I don't think I have time to [dwell on the loss.] A week from tomorrow, my life will change forever. I want to enjoy the positive times with my team. All I can do now is keep trying to perfect my craft and keep getting better. I want to continue a career in basketball. I get back in the gym when we get home. I can't change anything that happened tonight or the games we lost. I will reflect a little bit, and then I have to start thinking about the draft."

For McGraw, who recruited Diggins practically from the time she was a little kid, this goodbye is painful. But McGraw is clearly very proud of the "Pride of South Bend," and looks forward to what Diggins will do as a pro player.

"She's going to transition easily, because she's going to work so hard," McGraw said of Diggins moving on to the WNBA. "She's going to want to know exactly what you want her to do, and she's going to go do it.

"She's going to be in the gym all the time. She's going to be out in the community. She's going to bring fans to every game, home or away. It will be like winning the lottery and hitting the jackpot for the team that takes her."