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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – On a night when Tennessee hung a banner in Pat Summitt's honor, the ninth-ranked Lady Vols couldn't avenge one of the most brutal losses of the former coach's phenomenal tenure.
Tennessee made a furious rally down the stretch Monday night to cut a 19-point deficit to five, but the Lady Vols still fell 77-67 to No. 2 Notre Dame because they couldn't slow down Skylar Diggins. The senior guard scored a career-high 33 points to go along with five assists and four steals as the Fighting Irish won their 14th straight game.
"We went up against a great team and a great player in Skylar Diggins," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "We battled. When we learn to maintain a level of play for us, we're going to be very good. We just get in some lulls and some valleys."
Diggins' performance spoiled the Lady Vols' attempts to pull an upset on a night dedicated to Summitt, whose 1,098-208 career record gives her the most wins of any Division I men's or women's basketball coach ever. Summitt stepped down in April after announcing in 2011 that she has early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, though she remains on staff as head coach emeritus. Summitt led the Lady Vols to eight national titles and 18 Final Four appearances in 38 seasons.
The Thompson-Boling Arena court already is named after Summitt, but she had a banner raised in her honor before Monday's game. The announced crowd of 13,556 included former Lady Vols greats Tamika Catchings, Chamique Holdsclaw, Michelle Marciniak and Candace Parker.
"This is one of the toughest places to play with all those fans out there," Diggins said. "It was a great moment for Coach Summitt, with all those players like Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings on the sidelines. It was a very emotional night tonight, and I thought we did a good job of handling it because they had a lot to play for."
Diggins helped Notre Dame (19-1) become the first team ever to beat both Connecticut and Tennessee in three consecutive seasons. The Irish won 73-72 at Connecticut on Jan. 5.
After losing the first 20 meetings in this series, the Irish beat the Lady Vols in a 2011 regional final and trounced Tennessee 72-44 last season. That 72-44 result represented Tennessee's lowest point total and its second-most lopsided loss in Summitt's 38 seasons as coach. After last year's game, Tennessee's coaching staff covered the walls of the Lady Vols' locker room with pieces of paper bearing the numbers 72-44.
Tennessee (16-4) wanted to erase the memories of that embarrassment while also showing it could compete with elite teams. They had lost 76-53 on Dec. 18 at Baylor, now ranked first in the nation. They also had fallen 73-60 at home to Stanford on Dec. 22 when the Cardinal were ranked No. 1.
The Lady Vols put up more of a fight against Notre Dame, but they still came up short.
Bashaara Graves had 19 points and 13 rebounds for Tennessee (16-4), which had won its last nine games. Taber Spani added 12 points and Meighan Simmons had 11 points. Jewell Loyd had 10 points for Notre Dame, while Kayla McBride had nine points and 10 rebounds.
"We were on the verge of getting blown out," Warlick said. "We could have laid down and died, but we fought back. That's what I mean by we're here but then we check out. Then we're here and we check out. To be a great basketball team, you can't have lulls. You can't have valleys. You just can't. You can't get too high and you can't get too low. We just played in spurts tonight. And against a great team, you can't play in spurts. You just can't."
This loss could prove doubly painful for Tennessee.
The Lady Vols had announced before the game that starting center Isabelle Harrison was playing through a meniscus injury in her left knee. She was helped off the floor after hurting her knee again while driving to the basket in the first half.
Warlick had no immediate word on Harrison's condition. Her injury would leave Tennessee with only eight healthy players.
"I hope she's going to be back because we need her," Warlick said. "She's a vital part of our program."
Tennessee used the emotion of the pregame ceremony for Summitt 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 as the Irish built a 33-29 halftime advantage.
Diggins was even better early in the second half.
The senior guard scored 12 points in the first seven minutes of the second half. She had six points, three steals, one block and an assist during an 11-0 run that gave the Irish a 16-point lead.
"She played great," Spani said. "She played fantastic. She hit shots for them. She was their leader emotionally. She willed their team to victory."
After trailing by 19 points midway through the second half, Tennessee rattled the Irish with a furious rally and cut the lead to 69-64 on Spani's free throw with 3:54 remaining.
That's when Diggins took over once more.
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.