Changing of the Guard
Skylar Diggins grew up emulating Niele Ivey, now the two hope to bring Notre Dame a Title.
by Mirin Fader / @mirinfader
Young girls across America don’t just wear Jordans and colored wristbands while clutching a 28.5-inch basketball on their hip. Those coming up in the last four years wear the broad white signature headband of Notre Dame senior point guard Skylar Diggins, the player they want to be like.
As 10-year-old, Diggins dreamed of emulating another PG in South Bend: current Notre Dame assistant coach Niele Ivey, who led the Fighting Irish to their first National Championship in 2001 before playing five seasons in the WNBA. Back then there was no headband or other kind of signature attire for Diggins to wear to support her hometown hero; the way Ivey attacked the gaps of the defense like she was looking for gold in them was enough.
“I loved the way that she was always in command,” Diggins said. “The way she was always telling people where to go. She was such a momentum player, making the big plays when her team needed it.
“I’ve tried to embody those qualities that she had. I think we have the same energy and intensity. It’s just great to be able to turn to her on the sideline and learn from someone I look up to so much.”
In the years between the two women’s careers, a seismic shift occurred throughout the women’s game. The fundamental-based, half-court offense so praised for its discipline sped up—and every girl tried to catch it. Fastbreaking became commonplace, and a growing athleticism served as fuel.
The Final Four-bound Notre Dame bench where Diggins and Ivey sit, embodies this change, as the two reflect the present and past of the point guard position in women’s college hoops.
“The game is so different from when I played,” said Ivey, who averaged 16.5 points and 5.5 steals per game to lead the Irish to a 109-22 record during her playing tenure. “The offense we run at Notre Dame now is so much more high uptempo. That’s why Skylar generates so much offense in this system. It plays to all her strengths: She can get the ball up the court in two, three seconds, and she’s explosive. She has free range to score and run the team.”
As Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer, Diggins has the creative flair of the new school of point guards who look for their own shot as aggressively as they look to pass.
“The thing about Skylar is that she plays with so much swag,” Ivey said. “She makes everyone around her believe that they must play to their highest potential.”
The 5-9 scorer was the first player Ivey was responsible for recruiting when she was hired, and four years later, the two have created a bond only point guards can understand.
When Diggins made the switch from an off-guard to a point guard between her freshman and sophomore seasons, she and Ivey spent countless hours together in the film room, as Ivey taught her that a point guard is much more than someone who just brings the ball up.
“I wanted her to learn each and every person’s position with all of our offenses, not just her own,” Ivey said. “The biggest thing was knowing when to score. Sometimes as a point guard you might not need to score 20 points a game. She’s capable of doing that, but a lot of times she didn’t have to. She’s had 10 assists and 6 steals at times, doing whatever she needs to do for our team.”
Diggins since has become more well-rounded, becoming the first player in the program, and just the fourth NCAA Division I player since ‘01-02, to compile 600 points, 200 assists and 100 steals in a single season (‘11-12).
She has also welcomed the way Ivey raises expectations for her. After a poor first half performance against UConn for a chance to advance to the title game in Diggins’ sophomore year, Ivey lit into her.
“At halftime, she just got on me,” Diggins recalled. “She was on me so tough, but it made me respond. I appreciated all of those moments where she wasn’t afraid to be honest with me and say things that maybe other coaches wouldn’t.”
Diggins finished with 28 points and 6 assists to upset the Huskies 72-63 that night, before losing to Texas A&M for the Championship.
After losing in the title game for the second consecutive year last season against Baylor, head coach Muffet McGraw’s Notre Dame squad is determined to reclaim the Championship they haven’t had since Ivey’s shining moment.
As the team prepares for a Final Four semifinal matchup with UConn on Sunday, Diggins realizes this is her last chance at a title before the WNBA calls.
“I don’t want to just win for my team, but for all of my coaches, for Notre Dame,” Diggins said. “Having the campus right in my backyard growing up…Winning would just be special for our city.
“We’ve been here twice and came up short. You know the saying the third time’s the charm? We’re hoping that’s the case for us this year. For me as a senior, I just want to take it all in and soak up this moment.”
Mirin Fader is a sportswriter based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Dime magazine, Clippers.com and WNBA.com (L.A. Sparks). All of Mirin’s work can be found at mirinfader.com.