INDIANAPOLIS – A decade ago, a 10-year-old Skylar Diggins was sitting with her parents in their South Bend home glued to the television watching point guard Niele Ivey’s every move as Notre Dame defeated Purdue, 68-66, to win the 2001 NCAA Championship.
“Did I watch it?” Diggins said, when asked about the 2001 NCAA title game. “I had my hands on the TV. I was a huge Niele Ivey fan.”
Fast forward to present day. Diggins is in the same position as Ivey was 10 years ago with a shot at leading Notre Dame to a national title on Tuesday night against Texas A&M. What’s more, she’s being coached by her role model Ivey, who is now an assistant coach for the Irish.
“There is something so eerie about the connection about her team and our team,” Diggins said. “With her being on the bench now, I’ve learned from her and I know people definitely saw her blueprint all over me last night and how I tried to handle it like she did.”
Ivey, who returned to her alma mater to serve as an assistant coach for Muffet McGraw in 2007, has been influential in her protégé’s success at Notre Dame, beginning with recruiting Diggins from nearby South Bend Washington High School. Diggins had led her team to four consecutive Indiana state championship game appearances (2006-09), including three title games played in Conseco Fieldhouse. Her team won a Class 4A state championship in 2007. This highly-touted recruit also garnered 2009 Gatorade National High School Athlete of the Year and 2009 Indiana Miss Basketball accolades for her stellar play.
“Niele Ivey was instrumental [in recruiting Diggins] when I hired her,” McGraw said. “And I hired her and I said: You’ve got one job, that’s to get Skylar. She worked on it for a couple of years. And we couldn’t have been happier when she finally said yes.”
Since Diggins’ commitment to her hometown university, Ivey has played integral role in her transition from high school to college as she learned how to play under pressure on the court and handle playing at a higher level.
Diggins also credits Ivey with easing her adjustment from the two-guard to the one-guard as a sophomore this season.
“I never struggled as much in my life with anything as I did with that,” Diggins said. “She played a huge part in helping me with that. I watched three times as much film as I did my freshman year. I was constantly nagging her, going into her office every day and talking with her whether it is about life or boys or whatever and how she handled everything.”
Diggins is constantly consulting Ivey — at every practice, every timeout — making sure they are on the same page and picking the coach’s brain for advice.
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“The same offense they ran back then, we run now, so she’s helping me out with that, and she’ll get in there and practice with us, too,” Diggins said.
Ivey definitely sees the parallels between her and Diggins, and not just the fact they have both played point guard for the Irish.
“She always wants to watch my old games, which I think is hilarious,” Ivey said. “What young person remembers that? She’ll do something like slap her hand or another mannerism, and I’m like, ‘oh, my God, that was me.’ The fact she wants to win and does whatever it takes to do that, and that’s how I was. She scores a lot more than I did, and is very talented and getting a lot of recognition as a sophomore.”
Diggins was recently named to the 2011 State Farm Coaches’ All-America Team by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. She is averaging 14.8 points per game, and has collected 183 assists and 73 steals in 38 games this season, and is coming off an amazing 28-point performance in Sunday’s 72-63 victory against No. 1 Connecticut – a team that had beaten the Irish three times previously this year.
Ivey is honored that Diggins considers her such an influential person in her life.
“Back then, I didn’t realize what kind of legacy I would leave,” Ivey said. “I just wanted to play the game and whatever game it was, I wanted to win. Realizing how much of an impact I had on the South Bend community and her being a part of that is very special for me. Having the opportunity to coach her now is a blessing. She’s a coach’s dream to have a player that does whatever it takes to win and is so coachable and respects me, and realizes that I know what I’m talking about. I’m extremely blessed to be helping mentor her.”
Ivey is not the only member of the 2001 National Championship that has mentored and motivated Diggins and her teammates. At a 10-year reunion last fall, the 2001 squad met with the current Irish team, giving them a commemorative ball, which sits in a place of honor in Notre Dame’s locker room.
“They presented a ball to this team and said, ‘We’ve won our championship; now it’s your turn,’” McGraw said.
“We had a chance to tap their brains and hear what we needed to do,” Diggins said. “I think that was a turning point in the season, and our camaraderie became better and better and now it is as its’ highest. The 2001 team did a great job inspiring us, and how they delivered their message to us and I think it got through to our team.”
Perhaps that inspiration will come full circle once again on Tuesday night for another young, aspiring player.