Skylar Diggins is in town. The Notre Dame senior is the closest thing to a rock star that women’s college basketball has.
Sure, Baylor’s 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner draws crowds and oohs and ahhs with her dunks, and she’s won a national championship while dominating both ends of the court. She’ll be the first pick in the WNBA draft later this spring, and coaches all over America will toast her graduation day. She is a singular player.
But Diggins is something different. She has her basketball bona fides to be sure. As a prep, she won a state championship, was a McDonald’s All-American and played on national teams for USA basketball. She was the Gatorade national player of the year her senior season (not Griner).
Her college team reached the national finals the last two seasons. She is a three-time All-American. She won the Nancy Lieberman award as a junior for being the nation’s top point guard. Notre Dame beat UConn three times this season to win both the Big East regular season and tournament titles. To win the latter, she stole the ball with 6 seconds left, weaved through traffic like an errant pinball and found a teammate at the other end for the winning layup.
She averages 17 points, six assists and three steals per game. In her career, she has scored more than 2,000 points, has more than 500 assists and 500 rebounds.
Beyond the court she is part storybook, part role model and part celebrity with just a dash of diva thrown in.
She’s a hometown girl who’s wildly popular in South Bend, Ind., and takes her fame in stride. She is a good student who by all accounts is readily available to young people who see her as a heroine. Her coach, Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw, has called her the “face of college women’s basketball.”
“She has been a great role model,” McGraw said. “She has about 300,000 followers on Twitter. When we go on the road, it’s their best attendance for the game wherever we went. Fans were mobbing the court. We’ve had to bring security people with us so she could get to and from the bus and the gym.
“She embraces the role. She loves to spend time with kids and young people. She’s a phenomenal player. The best guard in the country. Exciting to watch.”
McGraw said Diggins has accepted that role since she was a freshman.
“There was lots of pressure to achieve some big things because expectations were so high,” McGraw said. “(She’s had an) unbelievable career. She’s exceeded those expectations. She handles it well. Very mature, very poised.”
McGraw also has called her the school’s greatest player, better even than former All-Americans Ruth Riley and Niele Ivey, who led the Irish to their national championship in 2001. McGraw told the Hartford Courant that Diggins changed the program, elevating it to an elite level.
Her celebrity extends beyond South Bend, obviously. She interned at ESPN last year and has been among the handful of players always featured when the ubiquitous network talks about women’s basketball. President Obama talked about her play in glowing terms while predicting the Irish would move on to the Sweet 16.
It doesn’t hurt that she has a model’s good looks and that rapper Lil Wayne mentioned her in a tweet and attended one of her games. That’s about when her Twitter following went ballistic. She had 311,730 followers as of Friday morning.
She came along at a perfect time in the Notre Dame-UConn rivalry. Neutral fans have come to love the leader of a team that has beaten the Evil Empire with regularity the last three years. Yes, the games have been close, but who cares? On the other hand, UConn fans have found a perfect villain. When one of the Hartford writers dared to repeat McGraw’s characterization of Diggins as the face of college women’s basketball, the comment section lit up and it wasn’t pretty.
Diggins has an edge about her, a level of self-confidence that gets under the skin of UConn fans and others who may be on the anybody-but-Notre Dame train. But it’s probably at least partly responsible for her success on the court and her ability to deal with the “Entourage” aspects of it off the court.
She is certainly not all that Notre Dame will put on the floor today in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. But all eyes will be on her, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Women’s basketball needs star power. She is well worth the price of a ticket this weekend.
Reach Susan Harman at email@example.com or 339-7369.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes women's basketball