NORFOLK, Va. — Call it the point guard region, where even the relatively untested freshman is a high school American becoming a steady player.
The four teams remaining in the Norfolk, Va., region — No. 1 seed Notre Dame, No. 2 seed Duke, No. 6 seed Nebraska and No. 12 Kansas — have players who've consistently won games and controlled tempo. Duke's lead point, Chelsea Gray, is out the rest of the year, but senior point guards at ND, NU and KU are operating at full power.
The Irish's point guard, Skylar Diggins, is the best-known, with more than 300,000 followers on Twitter while she averages 16.8 points, 5.8 assists and three steals per game for the nation's No. 2 team. The Irish have been NCAA runners-up the last two seasons, and Diggins is the straw stirring the drink.
“She's a lot more than a basketball player,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “She brought visibility to the game and the program. She's someone who people want to follow. It's been exciting. Great for the game, great for the kids. Phenomenal role model.”
Said Diggins: “I want to be the smartest player on the court.”
Diggins' matchup Sunday is with Kansas senior Angel Goodrich, whom Diggins called the best point guard in the Big 12. At 5-foot-4, Goodrich is also an inspiration, KU coach Bonnie Henrickson said.
“She has more importantly had an impact on all the little guys who have been told all their life that they are too little to play,” Henrickson said of Goodrich, who averages 14.4 points and seven assists per game.
Nebraska fans know senior Lindsey Moore, a Lieberman Award finalist who is the only Husker player to start for both NU teams to reach the Sweet 16.
“Competitive,” Nebraska coach Connie Yori said. “She is a kid who doesn't like to lose. Doesn't matter if we're playing a shooting game in practice, five-on-five, or if it's game time or if we're playing Monopoly. She just doesn't like to lose. She's got a really good skill-set. She can shoot the 3, she can put it on the floor, and what sets her apart, at times, is that she's a really good passer.”
Until Duke's Gray dislocated her right knee in a mid-February game, coach Joanne P. McCallie had never seen one of her players sustain that severe an injury in a seemingly innocuous situation — Gray coming down from an offensive rebound. Nor could the injury have happened to a more important Blue Devil player; Gray is Duke's defensive and vocal leader.
But Duke's been able to win all but one of its games since Gray got hurt, and some of the reason ties back to freshman backup (now starter) Alexis Jones, who's averaging 9.4 points and 4.3 rebounds this year.
“She's had to grow up from day one,” McCallie said. “She's a listener. Not a lot of kids are listeners these days.”
Blue Devil shooting guard Tricia Liston said Duke needed a few games to return “to the kind of team we want to be.” Gray's ability to defend the opponent's best guard and find open teammates left a significant imprint.
“But Lex has stepped up tremendously for us,” Liston said. “Vocally, she hasn't always been the loudest one — especially with Chelsea, since Chelsea did that — but she's come out of her shell. She's talking, she's yelling on the court, she's demanding of us. But also, she's not trying to take Chelsea's place. She's still her own player.”
Yori was plenty impressed with Jones.
“Terrific point guard,” Yori said. “What a nice luxury to lose someone of Chelsea's caliber and end up with a high school All-American in Alexis Jones. She is very talented and very good with the ball. She knows how to find her teammates.”
Coach gives Huskers consistency, focus
Look for NU to watch roughly half of Sunday's Notre Dame-Kansas game before heading to the locker room to start preparations for Duke, forward Meghin Williams said.
And don't look for Yori to pull out any fancy pep talks for the occasion, either.
“Same old Connie,” Williams said. “That's what we love about her. Her consistency. No matter the game, big or small, she's going to give you the same energy day in, day out. That's what makes us happy: She's our head coach and prepared and focused.”
— Sam McKewon