(Eds: Updates. With AP Photos.)By TOM COYNEAssociated Press
Skylar Diggins enters her final NCAA tournament with a sense of calmness after losses in the championship game the past two seasons.
”I’m really coming in with a light mood, approaching practice wanting to have fun and enjoy this moment, because it’s my last go around. But the sense of urgency is greater,” Diggins said Friday before practice. ”But I don’t think I’m putting any more pressure on myself or on our team than anyone else is.”
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Diggins, one of four finalists for the Naismith Award, has led the Fighting Irish (31-1) to its best regular-season ever, with Notre Dame posting its first undefeated Big East season and winning the league tournament for the first time, beating rival UConn three times along the way.
Diggins believes winning the league tournament is an example of this squad’s will to win and gives it momentum heading into the NCAA tournament, where the Irish open against Tennessee-Martin (19-14) on Sunday in Iowa City, Iowa. Notre Dame, which has won a school-record 26 straight, is a No. 1 seed for the second straight season and for the third time in program history.
Diggins, who was has started a school-record 139 games and played in 15 NCAA tournament games, said she isn’t feeling any nervousness about her last chance.
”The calmness comes with experience. I know what I have to do in my job,” she said.
Coach Muffet McGraw, who guided the Irish to a national championship in 2001, said Diggins had been feeling ”under the weather” all week. All Diggins would say Friday was that she is feeling fine.
McGraw knows Diggins is putting pressure on herself heading into the tournament. McGraw believes that’s a good thing because it’s what makes her one of the nation’s best players.
”She embraces that challenge. She wants to be great. She wants to be the best player and she wants us to be the best team. So I think for her, she’s going to go into this tournament – like she does for every other one – with an incredible sense of urgency and ready to go,” McGraw said. ”She doesn’t have to prove herself to anybody. She can just relax.”
Diggins heads into the tournament 53 points shy of breaking the school scoring record of 2,322 held by current assistant coach Beth Morgan Cunningham (1993-97). She already holds the school record for career steals with 365 and needs 20 assists to move past assistant coach Niele Ivey (1996-2001) into second on the school’s all-time list.
As good as Diggins has been in four seasons for the Irish, averaging 15.7 points a game on 44.8 percent shooting with 4.9 assists a game and 3.2 turnovers, she’s been even better at tournament time. In NCAA tournament games, Diggins is averaging 17.4 points on 46 percent shooting with 5.7 assists and 3.6 turnovers.
Teammates say as much as they want to simply win a championship, they want to win one even more for Diggins.
”That’s our end goal every year, but it makes it special this year,” junior forward Natalie Achonwa said. ”Skylar’s been such a great contributor to our program, not only this team, but the teams in the past as well. ”
Diggins doesn’t feel the need to stress to her teammates how much she and fellow senior Kaila Turner want a national championship.
”I think they can feel our sense of urgency,” she said.