KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Skylar Diggins wouldn’t allow Notre Dame to lose.
On a night when Tennessee was honoring one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history, Diggins delivered one of the best performances of her brilliant career. The senior guard scored a career-high 33 points as No. 2 Notre Dame beat the ninth-ranked Lady Vols 77-67 on Monday night for its 14th straight victory.
Diggins’ big performance spoiled Tennessee’s celebration of former Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt, who had a banner raised in her honor at Thompson-Boling Arena before the game. The announced crowd of 13,556 included former Lady Vols greats Tamika Catchings, Chamique Holdsclaw, Michelle Marciniak and Candace Parker.
“This is one of the toughest places to play with all those fans out there,” Diggins said. “It was a great moment for Coach Summitt, with all those players like Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings on the sidelines. It was a very emotional night tonight, and I thought we did a good job of handling it because they had a lot to play for.”
Diggins took over the game early in the first half to put the Irish ahead. She dominated on both ends of the floor again early in the second half as Notre Dame built a 19-point lead. After Tennessee cut the margin to five in the closing minutes, Diggins responded once again.
“She had a phenomenal game. … She’s shooting the ball extremely well,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “She shot 50 percent from the field (13 of 26) against a great defense, managed the game, ran the team. Fourth game in nine days, I thought we looked a little tired in stretches at the end, and I really didn’t want to take her out to even give her a quick breath. She really gutted it out for 40 minutes with intense pressure on the ball.”
Diggins helped Notre Dame become the first team ever to beat both Connecticut and Tennessee in three consecutive seasons. The Irish won 73-72 at Connecticut on Jan. 5. She also secured the Irish’s first win ever in Knoxville.
After losing its first 20 meetings in this series, the Irish beat the Lady Vols in a 2011 regional final and trounced Tennessee 72-44 last season. That 72-44 result represented Tennessee’s lowest point total and its second-most lopsided loss in Summitt’s 38-year tenure.
The Lady Vols (16-4) wanted to avenge that loss while also honoring Summitt, whose 1,098-208 career record gives her the most wins of any Division I men’s or women’s basketball coach ever. Summitt stepped down in April after announcing in 2011 that she has early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
“We went up against a great team and a great player in Skylar Diggins,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “We battled. When we learn to maintain a level of play for us, we’re going to be very good. We just get in some lulls and some valleys.”
Bashaara Graves had 19 points and 13 rebounds for Tennessee, which had won its last nine games. Taber Spani added 12 points and Meighan Simmons had 11 points. Jewell Loyd had 10 points for Notre Dame, while Kayla McBride had nine points and 10 rebounds.
Tennessee used the emotion of the pregame ceremony for Summitt to take an early 7-2 lead, but the Irish answered with a 12-2 run of their own. Diggins scored 11 points in the first 10 minutes of the game to help the Irish build an eight-point lead.
Notre Dame had chances to build an even bigger advantage.
Simmons, who entered the night averaging a team-high 17.6 points per game, picked up two early fouls and played just 11 minutes in the first half. Tennessee’s frontcourt endured a major loss when center Isabelle Harrison took a spill after driving to the basket and had to be helped to the locker room. The Lady Vols had announced before the game that Harrison was playing with a meniscus injury in her left knee.
Warlick had no immediate word after the game on the condition of Harrison, who didn’t return to the game.
“I hope she’s going to be back because we need her,” Warlick said. “She’s a vital part of our program.”
But the Irish didn’t take advantage in the early going and only led 33-29 at the half. Diggins wasn’t getting much help from her teammates, who shot a combined 8 of 30 in the first half.
“I thought the first half we were just kind of running through the motions of our offense,” Diggins said. “It’s almost like we weren’t trusting our offense.”
Diggins then took over the game.
The senior guard scored 12 points in the first seven minutes of the second half. She had six points, three steals, one block and an assist during an 11-0 run that gave the Irish a 16-point lead.
“She played great,” Spani said. “She played fantastic. She hit shots for them. She was their leader emotionally. She willed their team to victory.”
After trailing by as many as 19 points, Tennessee rattled the Irish with a furious rally over the final 10 minutes and cut the lead to 69-64 on Spani’s free throw with 3:54 remaining.
That’s when Diggins took over again.
She found Madison Cable for a layup that got the Irish out of danger. After Spani and Jasmine Jones missed jumpers on Tennessee’s next possession, Diggins sank a 3-pointer to make it a 10-point game.
Notre Dame’s lead wouldn’t drop below eight again. One of the game’s marquee personalities had come through on the big stage once again.
“With all those people out there, it’s great for women’s basketball,” Diggins said. “When you go to college, you dream of playing in games like this.”
Official Wire and AP
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