By Steve Megargee
The Associated Press
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Skylar Diggins scored a career-high 33 points and No. 2 Notre Dame built a 19-point lead in the second half before withstanding a late Tennessee rally in a 77-67 victory Monday night over the ninth-ranked Lady Vols.
Notre Dame (19-1) won its 14th straight game and snapped the Lady Vols’ nine-game winning streak. Notre Dame also became the first school ever to defeat both Connecticut and Tennessee in three consecutive seasons. The Irish won 73-72 at Connecticut on Jan. 5.
Before the game, Tennessee hung a banner at Thompson-Boling Arena in honor of former Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt, whose 1,098-208 record in 38 seasons gives her the most career wins of any Division I men’s or women’s basketball coach ever.
Summitt, who led Tennessee to eight national titles and 18 Final Four appearances, already had the playing court named after her. The Hall of Fame coach stepped down in April after announcing in 2011 that she has early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. She remains on Tennessee’s staff as head coach emeritus, attends just about every practice and sits in the stands for all home games. Former Lady Vol greats Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker attended Monday’s game.
Tennessee (16-4) used the emotion of that pregame ceremony to take an early 7-2 lead, but the Irish answered with a 12-2 run of their own. Diggins scored 11 points in the first 10 minutes of the game to help the Irish build an eight-point lead.
Notre Dame had chances to build an even bigger lead.
Tennessee guard Meighan Simmons, who entered the night averaging a team-high 17.6 points per game, picked up two early fouls and played just 11 minutes in the first half. Tennessee’s frontcourt endured a major loss when center Isabelle Harrison took a spill after driving to the basket and had to be helped to the locker room. The Lady Vols had announced before the game that Harrison was playing with a meniscus injury in her left knee.
But the Irish didn’t take advantage in the early going and only led 33-29 at the half. Diggins didn’t get much help from her teammates, who shot a combined 8 of 30 in the first half.
Diggins then took over the game early in the second half.
The senior guard dominated the Lady Vols on both ends of the floor. She had six points, three steals, one block and an assist during an 11-0 run that gave the Irish a 16-point lead.
Diggins started the run by sinking a 3-pointer and making a conventional three-point play. Tennessee called a timeout, but Diggins stole the ensuing inbounds pass, drove to the basket and sank one of two free throws after drawing a foul.
Diggins then made another steal that eventually led to a 3-point basket by Madison Cable.
She got one more steal on Tennessee’s next possession and passed to Kayla McBride for a jumper that capped the spurt.
In a 72-44 victory over Tennessee last season, Notre Dame broke open a close game in the second half and proceeded to hand the Lady Vols their second-most lopsided loss in Summitt’s tenure. This time, the Lady Vols fought back.
After trailing by as many as 19 points, Tennessee rattled the Irish with a furious rally over the final 10 minutes and cut the lead to 69-64 on Taber Spani’s free throw with 3:54 remaining.
That’s when Diggins took over again.
She found Madison Cable for a layup that got the Irish out of danger. After Spani and Jasmine Jones missed jumpers on Tennessee’s next possession, Diggins sank a 3-pointer to make it a 10-point game.
Notre Dame’s lead wouldn’t drop below eight again.
Jewell Loyd added 10 points for Notre Dame, while Kayla McBride had nine points and 10 rebounds. Bashaara Graves had 19 points and 13 rebounds for Tennessee. Taber Spani added 12 points and Simmons had 11 points.
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