UT-Martin-Notre Dame Preview

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.”

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.

The Skyhawks certainly won’t be intimidated by facing Diggins

and the Irish. They played other top seeds Baylor and Stanford back

in November, and only lost 82-67 to the top-ranked Bears. UT-Martin

was one of four teams to stay within 15 points of Baylor during the

regular season, and Notre Dame and UConn were two of the

others.

Jasmine Newsome and Heather Butler take more than 60 percent of

the Skyhawks’ shots. They’re the highest-scoring duo in the nation,

averaging 22.9 and 22.0 points to each rank among the NCAA’s top

seven in scoring.

UT-Martin lost 72-49 to second-seeded Tennessee in the first

round of the 2012 tournament, and 90-45 to second-seeded Duke in

the first round a year earlier.