SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins remembers calling a play last season just a moment before coach Muffet McGraw called for something else. Diggins decided to go ahead and run the play she called.
Diggins thought she might get an earful from McGraw when she got to the bench for the next timeout, but was pleasantly surprised.
"She said, 'I love that you have a mind of your own.' That's all she said. That was the end of the conversation,'" Diggins said.
McGraw probably wouldn't have reacted the same way to a lot of others who have played for her, but she and Diggins have a special relationship that dates when Diggins was a seventh grader. The dazzling 5-foot-9 point guard is now in her final year of playing for McGraw as she tries to find a way to lead the Irish to the NCAA title game for a third straight time — hopefully with a different outcome.
After two years of playing with veteran teammates, Diggins will play her senior year surrounded mostly by underclassmen. But the expectations are still high for the seventh-ranked Irish, and McGraw and Diggins say they believe a national championship is possible.
"We have to rise to the challenge," McGraw said.
McGraw is counting heavily on Diggins, a player she sees almost as a coach on the floor. While McGraw has had some standout point guards in her 31 years as coach, she said she's never had anyone like Diggins.
"She would have a great future in coaching but — I'm denigrating my own profession — she has so many bigger things to do than coaching," McGraw said. "I think she'd be a really great coach which is unusual for great players because they're so gifted that things come easy, they don't know how to teach it. She's the exception."
Diggins grew up in South Bend and remembers watching McGraw at games and going to McGraw's basketball camp when she was 11. That was a few months after McGraw guided Notre Dame to the 2001 national championship.
She remembers liking McGraw right away. McGraw doesn't remember noticing Diggins until seventh grade, but was so impressed by then she offered her a scholarship a year later. It wasn't just Diggins' basketball skills, either.
"She had that attitude and that competitive spirit that I was really attracted to because I see a lot of that in myself and I want people to hate to lose. So I saw that drive," McGraw said.
Diggins, who had received recruiting letters from other schools, was floored to get a scholarship offer so young and she liked McGraw. But she wasn't ready to commit right away. In fact, she wasn't ready to commit until almost the final few hours of the early signing period in November 2008.
"I was sweating it out until the bitter end," McGraw said.
Even when Diggins announced her decision by going into the locker room and picking up a score sheet and saying, "I wonder where you're going to play me next year," McGraw initially thought she meant the Irish had too many guards and she wouldn't fit in.
With all 12 players returning from the season before, Diggins didn't start initially and didn't play point as a freshman. McGraw remembers Diggins coming to her being frustrated that she wasn't starting and asking what she needed to do.
"She said, 'Lay it out for me, because that's what I'm going to do,'" McGraw said.
The first thing Diggins had to do was to learn to play without the ball. That was new, but she learned quickly and was starting by December. And she was dropping by the basketball offices, too, not typical of most freshmen.
Diggins said she thought she knew how to play point guard, until she began playing it sophomore year and McGraw began teaching her.
"I had to know time, score, possession. I had to learn those things. I had to learn the whole playbook and where everybody was supposed to be," she said. "I had to learn every player. Their likes and dislikes. I had to learn what they rathered and what they didn't. Because if something happened out of the blue, something went wrong, there was a 90 percent chance it was my fault."
Coach and player both say it's their competitiveness and love for basketball that made them close. McGraw knew that Diggins would blame herself 100 percent of the time. McGraw likes that.
"Even when she knows it's not her fault, she gets more mad at herself than anybody," McGraw said. "It's hard for her to accept anything less than perfection."
McGraw would use that in practice, putting the best defenders against Diggins and putting her in challenging positions. It frustrated Diggins.
Niele Ivey, a point guard on the 2000-01 national championship squad and now one of McGraw's assistants, said Diggins would come to her frustrated about the head coach.
"I'd tell her, 'She's putting you in scenarios to make you tough. She's challenging you,'" Ivey said.
Diggins said the best lesson McGraw taught her was to be herself.
"She didn't recruit me to be somebody else. She recruited me to be myself. That was the hardest thing for me to figure out," she said.
McGraw continued to throw some obstacles her way as a junior. As a senior, though, with Diggins leading a young team, McGraw said she doesn't plan to throw up any more obstacles because she'll face enough on her own.
"This year there's not going to be a lot of teaching points. For her, it's going to be more nuances and just little tweaks here and there of different things," she said. "I think we'll talk even more. I like to hear, 'What's it look like from your perspective? You're on the floor. What do you see?'"
McGraw loves talking basketball with Diggins.
"She just really watches games and texts me, 'Oh, they just ran Princeton. Or Indiana just ran this.' Whether it's a pro game or a college game, she just really wants to learn that. I love that," she said.
Diggins said she can't explain her relationship with McGraw other than to say she knows her so well sometimes she can finish her sentences.
"I can't explain how I know her. I've figured it out. She was the one who taught me things," Diggins said. "I think I challenge her. Sometimes I do. Sometimes we do butt heads a little bit. But that's part of any relationship. You butt heads with your friends, your family and things like that."