For thousands of Notre Dame fans, especially those devoted to women’s basketball, the Skylar Diggins story should have ended with a national championship.
Diggins led the Irish to the national finals as a sophomore and again as a junior. In this her senior season the team was 35-1 heading into a Final Four showdown with a team they had beaten three times already. The championship game opponent awaiting them had twice lost to the Irish by a total of almost 60 points.
With Baylor and Stanford eliminated, the road to the crown looked like destiny. The Diggins narrative had its climactic moment within its sights.
But reality — and the UConn Huskies — rewrote the ending. The loss was painful to watch. Diggins missed 12 of 15 shots, turned the ball over, misplaced the grace she had brought to the court since her freshman year. The frustration made you want to turn away.
Sometimes you can want something too badly, and you can carry with you the weight of expectations, the hopes of all those fans whose dreams you bear, who are counting on you to deliver despite the pressures.
Skylar Diggins was a hometown hero. Her game, her demeanor, her style, beauty and class filled Purcell Pavilion. And it wasn’t the students who packed those seats, but the South Bend community wearing green, cheering with fervor, bridging the town-gown divide that brought the city and campus together like nothing in anyone’s memory.
“I think we just cared so much, that we started taking bad shots,” said Kayla McBride who, like Diggins, is a sharp-shooting, All-American guard who couldn’t find the range against UConn either. “We wanted to win it with that shot. That was the competitive nature coming out in us. We were trying so hard. We wanted to win so bad. It ended up being a bad thing for us.”
One of the problems with sports is so many teams finish their season with a loss. And John Madden, I am told, once said that the pain of losing always exceeds the happiness of winning. There’s a lot of truth in that, unless perhaps you’re talking about the ultimate exultation of winning it all.
And that has escaped Skylar Diggins. Despite all the records and the national attention, the 300,000 Twitter followers and the personal and team accomplishments, she didn’t take home the biggest prize of all.
But let no one judge her on that.
Here’s the epilogue Diggins sketched out for herself after the loss: “I just want to be a player that’s remembered that she was a leader, she was a competitor, she loved the University and the city of South Bend like no other, that she embodied everything that the University stood for, and she loved her family, and that she left it all on the court and was fun to watch and was a winner.”
Notre Dame fans everywhere wanted Diggins to go out on top, hoisting the big trophy over her head to complete the feel-good storybook saga. And they wanted their dreams lifted up there too, by Diggins and her teammates, taking them along to the summit. But sometimes dreams aren’t realized and the happy endings go to others.
But all of us, especially those who care about this institution and how it is represented, owe a huge expression of gratitude to Diggins and her teammates and their coach. They played with excellence and camaraderie and an inspiring will to succeed. And they did so with class.
Diggins has carried a load in her four years here — pressures to perform on the court that must have felt enormous to her as well as pressures to excel as a student, as a representative of the University, as a citizen of South Bend, and a role model and emerging celebrity under national scrutiny. And she responded beautifully to it all.
She didn’t bring a championship trophy to campus, but the contributions she has made to this place just might be more valuable than that single piece of hardware. While a national title would have been pretty sweet, few Notre Dame athletes — male or female — so played like a champion every day.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email him at email@example.com.