After losing the last two national championship games, and a core of veteran players, it was assumed Notre Dame might take a year, like maybe this year, to catch its breath. You know, rebuild, reload and eventually rebound.
While that seemed logical, there was a fundamental problem with the assumption. Notre Dame did not agree with it.
Not only did the Fighting Irish rebuild and reload they rebounded stronger than ever, completing the regular season 28-1, on a 23-game winning streak and perfect in the Big East Conference (16-0) for the first time ever.
And on Friday, the Fighting Irish reaped the benefits of a season whose only loss has come to No. 1 Baylor, 73-61, on Dec. 5 in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame swept the conference’s major awards.
Senior guard Skylar Diggins was voted the Player of the Year for the second consecutive season, just the sixth player so honored.
Muffet McGraw was voted Coach of the Year for the second time, the first since her 2000-01 national championship season.
Guard Jewel Loyd is the Freshman (Rookie of the Year), the first Irish player to win it since Jacqueline Batteast in 2001-02.
And DePaul’s Anna Martin, whose season was truncated by a knee injury that cost her nine games, was voted the Big East’s Scholar-Athlete. On Thursday, Martin was also named the winner of its Sportsmanship Award.
Notre Dame’s sweep is rarity in a world long dominated by UConn players. It’s just the sixth time since 1982-83 that the Huskies were not represented among the three major awards.
It’s the first time since 2004-05 when Batteast was the Player of the Year, C. Vivian Stinger of Rutgers the Coach of the Year and Matee Ajavon of the Scarlet Knights the Rookie of the Year.
Four of the years came between 1982-86, five years before the Huskies made their first Final Four appearance.
Notre Dame has won 123 games during the Diggins era and has reached new offensive and heights as a program. She is second all-time in scoring and first in starts, converted free throws, steals and minutes played.
“It has all exceeded my expectations,” Diggins said of her career. “I thought the team would do well. But for me, it’s all about how much I’ve learned since I’ve been here from Coach McGraw. Notre Dame is the place I’ve grown into a woman and I am glad I chose to attend it.”
She will likely be named to the Associated Press All-American team the second straight season and is considered a lock to be one the first four players taken in April’s WNBA Draft.
McGraw, inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, has won 619 games at Notre Dame in her 26 seasons. She has coached in four Final Fours and won the 2000-01 national championship. This will be Notre Dame’s 20 NCAA appearance and its 18th straight.
Monday, the Irish completed their second straight regular-season sweep of Notre Dame with a compelling triple-overtime win South Bend to clinch the Big East’s top seed in the tournament.
“I can’t believe I woke up so early the next morning,” McGraw said. “It was a great win for us and it provide us a feeling on peace, contentment, like ‘we did it.’
“So we decided to enjoy it for the moment and by the end of the day it was back to business as usual.
“I don’t think either team played remarkably well; it was sloppy at times. But the intensity … every possession mattered.”
Loyd, a WBCA All-American last season at Niles West High in Lincolnwood, Ill., was a four-time Big East Freshman of the Week. She has been the conference’s Freshman of the Week four times and scored 24 points in the Baylor loss.
“Syklar [Diggins] has been the best mentor I could ever have asked for,” Loyd said.
Martin was the Big East’s leading scorer last season and a first-team selection.
“I try not look at the what-ifs, what could have happened,” Martin said. “My season was shortened certainly, but I’m not alone. In my time here we’ve had players not able to enjoy their senior seasons [because of injury].