Irish women try to move on without Diggins

'One-in-a-million player' comes back to help, can't really be replaced

Notre Dame Fighting Irish coach Muffet McGraw and players Kayla McBride, Jewell Loyd, and Lindsay Allen comment on how the team is different without star guard Skylar Diggins.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It was hard to take your eyes off the player in the red T-shirt and baggy black shorts, and not just because the clothes made her stand out from everyone else on the floor at a recent Notre Dame women's basketball practice.

You watched the speed of her movements, the precision of her passes, the magnetic power of her court presence, and the impression was here is a singular player with a big future.

All that is true about Skylar Diggins, the charismatic superstar who already is part of the glorious past for the Irish women but still is helping them whenever possible in the present.

"It's definitely different without her," said sophomore Jewell Loyd of Niles West, well on her way to becoming the next Irish standout. "Her impact on this team and this community was huge."

The local girl who stayed home and made good, taking the Irish to three straight Final Fours and two runner-up finishes, has come back often enough since the end of the WNBA season to practice occasionally with the Irish.

"She is a one-in-a-million player," Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. "I don't think you can ever replace her."

Diggins has brought the same competitive drive in her offseason that McGraw said raises the intensity level at every practice.

"Skylar is also a teacher," said senior Kayla McBride, the team's No. 2 scorer behind Diggins last season. "She is the smartest player I ever have played with."

Diggins, the program's only four-time All-American, has focused on helping her replacement at point guard, freshman Lindsay Allen, learn the offense and deal with running it. Sitting near courtside for the season opener against UNC-Wilmington, Diggins could be heard yelling out instructions to Allen.

"She comes in here trying to make me tougher," Allen said. "She pressures me (defensively) to make sure I can handle the ball and handle the team."

So far, so good. Allen, the first freshman to start the season opener at point guard since 1994 (Diggins was a shooting guard her first season), has just four turnovers in 100 minutes, and her fifth-ranked team takes a 4-0 record into Tuesday night's home game against No. 25 DePaul (3-0).

"We look to Lindsay to run the team, but when you have four veteran starters returning, it should be a lot easier," McGraw said. "Her job is to get them the ball."

Natalie Achonwa, the 2012 Canada Olympian who is replacing Diggins as the team's vocal leader, has played only the most recent game. Achonwa, who underwent Oct. 22 arthroscopic surgery for a torn meniscus ligament in the right knee, saw 14 minutes of action Saturday at Penn.

Without her, Notre Dame had an impressive 81-62 win over No. 21 Michigan State two weeks ago. Loyd, last season's national freshman of the year, had 22 points and nine rebounds against the Spartans.

"Jewell is one of the best players in the country," McGraw said.

It took the 5-foot-10 Loyd just six games as a freshman to show she belonged in such company. She had 24 points and seven rebounds last December in a loss to then-No. 3 Baylor and Brittney Griner.

"I was surprised she came into her own that quickly," McGraw said. "She was our best 3-point shooter last year, and she can really rebound. I'd like to see her around the basket more this year."

As Loyd finished a give-and-go with an in-your-face 3 in practice, Matt McGraw, the coach's husband, said, "She's Michael Jordan out there." Loyd prefers to model herself on Kobe Bryant, emulating his fadeaway jumper and jump-step and what she sees as Bryant's fearless mentality.

Loyd showed that kind of confidence last season. Now she is trying to pass it on to Allen.

"I told Lindsay to have fun with it," Loyd said. "She's here for a reason and shouldn't ever doubt her skills. We trust her and wouldn't put her in a situation she wasn't ready for."

Another freshman, 6-3 Taya Reimer of Fishers, Ind., is being counted on to make a significant contribution this season. Loyd and McBride, who was invited to USA Basketball's senior national team minicamp last summer, figure to carry the scoring load as the Irish play their debut season in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

McGraw thinks the sum of a lot of talented parts can cover what Diggins did statistically.

"You have to look at the group and say we need to find somebody to replace this part of it and somebody to replace this part of it, with all those people together doing a little bit more," McGraw said. "That's how you attack it, but the intangible part, that's very hard to replace."

The woman in the red shirt cursed herself for a bad pass.

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil

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