No. 2 Notre Dame outlasts No. 9 Tennessee
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — One of the best performances of Skylar Diggins’ brilliant career spoiled a night when Tennessee was honoring former coach Pat Summitt.
Diggins scored a career-high 33 points Monday as Notre Dame built a 19-point lead and withstood a late Tennessee rally in a 77-67 triumph over the Lady Vols. Notre Dame earned its 14th straight victory and snapped the Lady Vols’ nine-game winning streak.
Now the Lady Vols (16-4) hope the loss doesn’t prove doubly painful.
Tennessee center Isabelle Harrison was playing Monday with a meniscus injury in her left knee. Harrison hurt the knee again in the first half while driving to the basket, and the 6-foot-3 sophomore had to be helped off the floor. Tennessee coach Holly Warlick had no immediate word on Harrison’s condition.
“I hope she’s going to be back because we need her,” Warlick said. “She’s a vital part of our program.”
Before the game, Summitt had a banner raised in her honor at Thompson-Boling Arena. Summitt’s 1,098-208 career record in 38 seasons gives her the most wins of any Division I men’s or women’s basketball coach. Summitt stepped down in April after announcing in 2011 that she has early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
Summitt’s ceremony attracted plenty of star power. 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. And after Tennessee cut a 19-point deficit to five in the closing minutes, Diggins responded once more.
“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 (19-1) become the first team to beat both Connecticut and Tennessee in three consecutive seasons. The Irish won 73-72 at Connecticut on Jan. 5.
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. This marked the first time Notre Dame had beaten Tennessee in Knoxville.
“We went up against a great team and a great player in Skylar Diggins,” 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. 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 a 33-29 halftime lead.
Diggins was even better early in the second half.
The senior guard scored 12 points in the first seven minutes after the break. 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.”