Bitter banner night: Lady Vols can’t catch up with Irish
By David Cobb | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee already knew who Skylar Diggins was.
Notre Dame’s senior point guard and leading scorer dropped 27 points on the Lady Vols when the Fighting Irish routed UT in South Bend last January.
But in case the No. 9 Lady Vols had forgotten, the preseason Big East player of the year one-upped that performance Monday at Thompson-Boling Arena, scoring a career-high 33 points in a 77-67 victory for No. 2 Notre Dame.
The change in scenery from the 2012 matchup provided the Lady Vols with additional motivation, as UT head coach emeritus Pat Summitt was given a spirited ovation from the 13,556 orange-clad fans with the ceremonial raising of a banner in her honor during a pregame ceremony.
Riding the emotional wave, the Lady Vols jumped out to a 7-2 lead in the opening two minutes, but from there the night belonged to Diggins.
“I thought we did a great job handling it,” Diggins said of the atmosphere surrounding game, which was broadcast nationally on ESPN2. “They had a lot to play for. and it’s tough when you play in atmosphere like this … When you go to college, you dream of playing in games like this.”
Diggins scored 11 in a back-and-forth first half in which Notre Dame surged ahead by eight, only to see the Lady Vols equal the score at 25-all with 5:33 remaining.
Unfortunately for UT, those remaining minutes in the first half weren’t ideal.
The Fighting Irish closed the half on an 8-4 spurt, and UT starting forward Isabelle Harrison went down with an apparent leg injury, unable to return.
Notre Dame — specifically Diggins — continued expanding its lead to open the second half. The left-handed speedster scored 10 points in the frame’s opening five minutes as the Fighting Irish opened up a lead that eventually grew to 19.
“We all talked about getting out to a quick start the first couple minutes of the half,” Diggins said. “I thought our team picked it up defensively, and then we got out in transition. It’s a game of runs, and we made ours early in the second half.”
Tennessee wasn’t without a run of its own though.
With their rotation down to just six players, the Lady Vols embarked on a stretch in which they outscored Notre Dame 21-6, narrowing the deficit to 69-64 on a Taber Spani free throw with 3:54 to play.
Two possessions later, Diggins faked a backdoor cut, took a handoff from teammate Natalie Achonwa, and drained a 3-pointer to expand the Fighting Irish lead back to 10 and bury UT’s comeback hopes.
“She played great,” Spani said. “She played fantastic, had key shots for them, and was their leader emotionally, and she willed their team to victory.”
Only Bashaara Graves played more minutes than Diggins, who rested for just 30 seconds.
Graves played the entire game due to Harrison’s injury, leading the Lady Vols with 19 points and 13 rebounds.
Spani pitched in 12 points and eight rebounds, as she logged minutes in the paint.
But the duo combined to shoot just 8-of-27 from the floor in pacing a UT offensive attack that shoot 33.3 percent for the game.
“Obviously I’m disappointed in the outcome,” UT coach Holly Warlick said. “We went up against a great team, and a great player in Skylar Diggins.
“We battled, and when we learn to maintain a level of play, we’re going to be very good. We just get in some lulls and valleys.”
No. 2 NOTRE DAME 77, No. 9 TENNESSEE 67
NOTRE DAME (19-1)
Diggins 13-26 4-8 33, Achonwa 2-4 4-5 8, McBride 4-18 0-0 9, Loyd 3-7 4-6 10, Braker 1-2 0-0 2, Cable 4-6 0-2 9, Mabrey 2-3 0-0 6, Wright 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 29-68 12-21 77.
Massengale 1-6 0-0 3, Simmons 4-11 2-2 11, Graves 5-17 9-10 19, Spani 3-10 5-6 12, Harrison 3-8 0-0 6, Jones 3-6 3-4 9, Williams 3-8 0-0 7. Totals 22-66 19-22 67.
Halftime—Notre Dame 33-29. 3-Point Goals—Notre Dame 7-15 (Diggins 3-7, Mabrey 2-3, McBride 1-2, Cable 1-2, Loyd 0-1), Tennessee 4-12 (Massengale 1-2, Williams 1-3, Spani 1-3, Simmons 1-4). Fouled Out—Achonwa. Rebounds—Notre Dame 45 (McBride 10), Tennessee 47 (Graves 13). Assists—Notre Dame 17 (Diggins 5), Tennessee 16 (Massengale 9). Total Fouls—Notre Dame 18, Tennessee 17. A—13,556.