Experience pays for Diggins

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

ROSEMONT, Ill. — When Tulsa took the court to start the second half of Sunday’s WNBA game, the Shock faced a 10-point deficit on the Chicago Sky’s home court.

Former Notre Dame point guard Skylar Diggins huddled up the league’s youngest team, and delivered an impassioned plea to take the second half.

A few minutes after the second half started, Diggins ignited an 11-2 run by the Shock, who would trim the Sky lead to two. Diggins then headed to the Shock bench for a quick breather — and the Shock lost momentum, falling behind by 10 points once again.

Chicago maintained the 10-point lead at the 8:37 mark of the fourth quarter, when Diggins took command. She scored seven points down the stretch and helped Tulsa finish with a 26-16 surge to force overtime. In overtime, Diggins scored six points to lead Tulsa, as the Shock scored its first road victory of the season — in its seventh attempt — with a 105-99 overtime victory at Allstate Arena.

Diggins finished with a career-high 33 points. The former South Bend Washington High School star said that the trials of her rookie season in 2013 have led to success this season.

“I heard LeBron say in an interview that experience is the best teacher,” Diggins said. “I think that’s what the difference is for this season, because I know what to expect.”

ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said that Diggins is thriving in the uptempo offense that first-year Tulsa coach Fred Williams has implemented.

“Fred Williams runs drag screens and puts Skylar in a lot of pick-and-roll situations that allow her to use her instincts, a lot like (coach) Muffet McGraw did at Notre Dame,” Robinson said. “She has a lot of freedom to make reads in the offense. That freedom has been good for her.”

Robinson said that in the WNBA, Diggins had to deal with a speed that she rarely saw at the collegiate level. It isn’t just the guards who have great quickness. When Diggins drives, post players are able to quickly slide over to play defense.

“In the WNBA, when you’re playing against the best athletes in the world, it takes an adjustment, especially at the point guard spot,” Robinson said. “If you ask any coach in the WNBA, what position is hardest to transition to from college, they will tell you it’s the point guard position.”

Diggins said that Williams and position coach Bridget Pettis have played major roles in her improvement from 8.5 points and 3.8 assists a game last season to 19.5 points and 5.3 assists a game this season.

Pettis was on the coaching staff on two WNBA championship teams at Phoenix, and helped the development of players like Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter and Candace Parker.

“We have a great coaching staff this year that’s full of teachers who have experience winning in this league,” Diggins said. “To have coach Pettit, who was a point guard and is now a coach … it’s great to get insight from her.”

Shining example

WNBA commissioner Laurel Richie said that Diggins is a shining example of a player who came into the league, learned from her first year and applied that knowledge to make stellar progress.

Diggins had a tougher road than most, according to Richie, because the former Irish great was part of the heavily promoted “3 to See” campaign that heralded the first years of Diggins, Brittany Griner and Elena Delle Donne.

“Skylar came into the league last year with a great amount of attention from our fans and from the media,” Richie said. “I think, on top of making the transition from amateur to pro, she had a whole other level of attention to accommodate and adjust to.”

Rivals no more

Diggins and former Baylor star Odyssey Sims, Tulsa’s first-round pick this season, are paired together in what has the potential to develop into the top backcourt in the WNBA. In college, they battled for a national championship, with Baylor taking the title in the 2012 final.

“As competitors. I know Odyssey as a fierce, hard-nosed, in-your-face player,” Diggins said. “I’m glad to have that type of player on my side now.”

As Diggins and Sims build their chemistry through practice and games, they give Tulsa a double-barreled attack on the perimeter. Each can handle the ball and run the transition. They are interchangeable at the 1 and 2 positions. And when Sims takes the point, Diggins is free to work her magic.

“Odyssey takes a lot of pressure off of me on defense and offense, being able to bring the ball up, “ Diggins said. “If I have the hot hand, she’s calling the play for me. She has a high basketball IQ.”

Masterpiece coming

Diggins got to see former Irish teammate Kayla McBride start her WNBA career this season when Tulsa opened its season May 17 against the San Antonio Stars. Tulsa has played San Antonio twice, losing both contests, 82-79 and 80-76.

The rookie McBride is averaging 10.6 points a game. She was the first player in the WNBA to score 30 points in a game this season, that coming in the 82-79 victory against the Shock.

“Kayla’s masterpiece is coming,” Diggins said. “She’s a tough player, just playing against her, playing with her ... she’s doing exactly what I expected.”

Diggins said that McBride has been able to create her own shots and knock those open shots down. McBride has also proven to be valuable, thanks to her ability to drive as well as being able to defend point guards to power forwards and everything in between.

“We talked the other day when she got in touch to congratulate me (about being named player of the week),” Diggins said of McBride. “She’s still my partner in crime.”

South Bend proud

Diggins loved seeing several busloads of fans from South Bend at Sunday’s game in Rosemont, Ill., near Chicago.

Diggins received a roaring ovation when she was introduced, and the hometown contingent was spirited throughout the game as Diggins poured in her career-high 33 points.

“It’s always great to see the people I love and care about come out and support me and actually be in the stands,” Diggins said.

Tulsa's Skylar Diggins (4) celebrates as the Shock picks up points in the 106-99 win over the Chicago Sky on Sunday, June 22, 2014, inside Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)