NOTRE DAME, Ind. - From the simple ribbons and certificates of their youth, to the gold medals and sparkling crystal trophies of their college and international careers, University of Notre Dame alumnae Skylar Diggins ('13) and Kayla McBride ('14) have collected numerous awards celebrating their success on the basketball court.
So it came as little surprise this week when both players received honors for their sensational play at the professional level as part of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) postseason Performance Awards series. Diggins was chosen as the 2014 WNBA Most Improved Player, while McBride was a unanimous choice for this year's WNBA All-Rookie Team and finished third in the voting for the 2014 WNBA Rookie of the Year award.
"We could not be more proud of Skylar and Kayla for their accomplishments this season," Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. "They both worked incredibly hard to put themselves in a position to be successful and it's hard to argue with the results. All of us at Notre Dame and within the Fighting Irish women's basketball program are excited for what lies ahead for all of our Irish in the WNBA in the coming years."
Diggins, who recently completed her second professional season with the Tulsa Shock who drafted her No. 3 overall in 2013, is the first Notre Dame alumna (and first player in Shock franchise history) to receive the WNBA Most Improved Player award, while this marks the second consecutive season a former Fighting Irish player has received WNBA all-rookie accolades -- Diggins made the squad in 2013. What's more, both Diggins and McBride are contenders for 2014 All-WNBA honors, with the two five-player all-league teams to be announced in the coming days.
Diggins was the clear leader in the WNBA Most Improved Player balloting, receiving 29 of a possible 38 votes from a panel of local and national sportswriters and broadcasters, with no other player earning more than two votes from the media group. As this year's award recipient, Diggins received a $5,000 prize and a specially designed trophy, courtesy of the award's sponsor, Samsung.
"It means a lot to me, especially after the individual year I had (in 2013)," Diggins told the Tulsa World earlier this week. "I felt I had something to prove to myself. I put in a lot of hard work in the offseason to make sure I came back and did my part for the team because I didn't feel like I did my part last year.
"I wanted to be strong in every category and I wanted to be that leader," she added. "I think with this individual year that I've had, I was able to become that leader, and have the credibility for people to want to listen to me and want to follow me."
Diggins more than doubled her scoring average in 2014, finishing second in the WNBA at 20.1 points per game after logging 8.5 ppg. as a rookie in 2013. She also showed improvement in assists, winding up fourth in the league at 5.0 assists per game (up from 3.8 apg. a year ago), while adding growth in rebounds (2.5 rpg., up from 1.9 rpg.), field goal percentage (.423 from .328) and three-point percentage (.282 from .244). The South Bend, Ind., native started all 34 games for Tulsa this year, leading the Shock in points, assists, steals (1.5 per game) and minutes (league-leading 35.1 per game), while scoring in double figures 33 times, including 18 20-point games, four 30-point outings and a career-high 34 points on July 22 at San Antonio.
Diggins also sparkled on the biggest stage at the nationally-televised 2014 WNBA All-Star Game in Phoenix, starting for the West Team and scoring a team-high 27 points (second-most in All-Star Game annals) in a 125-124 loss to the East, a contest termed by many observers as the finest in the game's 12-year history.
McBride, who was chosen third overall in the 2014 WNBA Draft by the San Antonio Stars, was one of three players to garner all 11 votes from the league's coaches who voted on this year's five-person WNBA All-Rookie Team -- coaches were not permitted to vote for their own players. McBride also received two votes in the balloting for WNBA Rookie of the Year, with Connecticut Sun forward Chiney Ogwumike taking home the award.
McBride wasted little time in validating her claim as one of the bright young stars in the WNBA, starting all 34 games for San Antonio and scoring 442 points, the most by a Stars rookie since the franchise relocated from Salt Lake City in 2003. The Erie, Pa., product ranked among the top 10 league rookies in scoring (3rd - team-high 13.0 ppg.), three-point percentage (1st - .396; also sixth among all WNBA players), free throw percentage (1st - .846; also 14th among all WNBA players), assists (7th - 1.7 apg.) and steals (7th - 1.0 spg.). She scored in double figures 20 times, including six 20-point games and a career-high 30 points on two occasions, both at home (May 28 against Tulsa; July 9 against New York).
Like Diggins, McBride rose to the occasion when the lights were brightest, averaging 22.5 points per game with a .593 field goal percentage and .600 three-point percentage in San Antonio's two playoff contests against Minnesota in the WNBA Western Conference semifinals. Although the Stars dropped both tightly contested games in the best-of-three series, McBride topped 20 points and led the team in scoring each night, including 25 points in a 94-89 Game 2 loss at home.
Diggins indicated she plans to remain in the United States during the WNBA offseason and will continue training while pursuing additional opportunities through her agent, renowned music mogul Jay-Z and his management company, Roc Nation. Meanwhile, McBride signed a contract to play this winter with UE Sopron, the reigning regular season champion in the Hungarian Basketball League and a qualifier for the 2014 EuroCup, an annual tournament featuring many of the top clubs in Europe (similar to soccer's Champions League and Europa League) that is held concurrently with each club's domestic season.
DIGGINS, McBRIDE HEAD TO USA SENIOR NATIONAL TEAM CAMP
Postseason honors weren't the only thing coming for Diggins and McBride this week, as both players were among 27 selected to attend the 2014 USA Basketball Senior National Team training camp beginning Sept. 8 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. The camp will help identify the 12-player roster for the 2014 USA Women's World Championship Team that will be named prior to the start of the FIBA Women's World Championship, scheduled for Sept. 27-Oct. 5 in Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey.
"This is a tremendous honor and it will be the experience of a lifetime for both Skylar and Kayla," McGraw said. "They have both shown the capability to succeed at the highest levels and with the USA Basketball experience they already have under their belt, we believe the best is yet to come for both of them in the pro and international game."
Diggins and McBride are members of the 2014-16 USA Basketball Senior National Team player pool, having qualified for the group following their performances at a USA Basketball mini-camp Oct. 4-6, 2013, in Las Vegas. At the time, McBride was entering her senior season at Notre Dame, making her the first active Fighting Irish women's basketball player to suit up for the USA Senior National Team in any capacity. She and Diggins are aiming to be the first Notre Dame players to represent the United States in senior international competition since 2004, when Ruth Riley ('01) earned a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.
Diggins is five-time USA Basketball gold medalist, most recently helping the United States to the title at the 2012 FIBA 3x3 World Championship, also held in Athens. McBride previously earned a gold medal with the victorious USA Basketball side at the 2010 FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Colorado Springs, Colo.
During its domestic training camp, the 2014 USA Basketball Senior National Team will play two exhibition games that will be televised live on ESPN2 and available online through the WatchESPN mobile platform. The team first will hold the USA Basketball Women's National Team Showcase, a Red vs. White scrimmage at 7 p.m. (ET) Sept. 11 inside the Bob Carpenter Center in Newark, Del.
Team USA then will relocate to New England, and train alongside the Canadian National Team on Sept. 14 before facing Canada in an exhibition game at 7 p.m. (ET) Sept. 15 at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Conn.
Following the contest, the United States side heads to Europe for four additional exhibitions against 2012 Olympic silver medalist France, 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Australia, 2010 FIBA World Championship silver medalist Czech Republic and 2013 FIBA Asia bronze medalist China, prior to the start of the World Championship.
Finalists for the 2014 USA World Championship Team will compete in the France International Tournament Sept. 19-21 at the Stade Pierre de Coubertin in Paris. The U.S. will open against Australia on Sept. 19, followed by China on Sept. 20, and will close the round-robin tournament against host France on Sept. 21.
From there, the Americans will head to Prague, Czech Republic, for an exhibition against Czech Republic on Sept. 23, before traveling to Istanbul for their final pre-World Championship preparations.
The USA Basketball Women's National Team Player Selection Committee will select the final 12-player roster for the 2014 USA World Championship Team. The Committee is led by USA Basketball Women's National Team director Carol Callan, along with three WNBA appointees -- Renee Brown, WNBA chief of basketball operations and player relations, Dan Hughes, San Antonio Stars head coach and general manager, and Chris Sienko, Connecticut Sun vice president and general manager -- and three-time Olympic and two-time FIBA World Championship gold medalist Katie Smith, who played in nearly 200 games for USA Basketball from 1993-2008, and serves as the athlete representative.
PETERS, McBRIDE REPRESENT FIGHTING IRISH IN WNBA PLAYOFFS
In the midst of various honors and USA Basketball selections, Notre Dame also has been well-represented during the 2014 WNBA playoffs, with McBride and Devereaux Peters ('12) both have been key contributors for their respective teams this postseason.
While McBride did all she could to keep San Antonio's season alive against Peters' Minnesota squad in the WNBA Western Conference semifinals by averaging a team-high 22.5 points per game (see earlier note), it wasn't enough to prevent the defending league champion Lynx from sweeping the best-of-three series and advancing to the conference finals for the fourth year in a row.
Peters appeared in both Western Conference semifinal games against San Antonio, averaging 5.0 points per game with a .625 field goal percentage.
Peters and her Minnesota teammates now sets their sights on the league's best team during the regular season, the Phoenix Mercury, with Game 1 of the best-of-three Western Conference finals set for 10 p.m. (ET) Friday at US Airways Center in Phoenix and televised live on NBA TV. Game 2 will air live on ABC at 3:30 p.m. (ET) Sunday from the Target Center in Minneapolis, and if necessary, the deciding third game would be at 10 p.m. (ET) Sept. 2 back in Phoenix (also on NBA TV).
The series winner will advance to the WNBA Finals against the winner of the Eastern Conference finals matchup between a pair of Midwest rivals, the Chicago Sky and Indiana Fever, with the Fever holding the home court advantage in the series. Indiana also has a Notre Dame women's basketball connection, as two-time All-America forward Natalie Achonwa ('14) was chosen by the Fever in the first round (No. 9 overall) of the 2014 WNBA Draft. Achonwa, who has not been on Indiana's roster this season while she rehabilitates a knee injury suffered in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, temporarily is serving as an operations specialist on the Fighting Irish women's basketball staff.
2014-15 SCHEDULE UPDATE
With Wednesday's announcement of the 2014-15 Notre Dame men's basketball schedule, attention now turns to the Fighting Irish women's basketball team and the anticipated release of its upcoming docket.
Notre Dame currently is awaiting a completed conference schedule from the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) office, with that rundown expected sometime in the next couple of weeks. Once finalized, the entire Fighting Irish schedule (league and non-conference) will be submitted for consideration by the University's Faculty Board on Athletics, and upon approval from the Board, the schedule then may be released to the public.
In the meantime, fans are reminded that a limited number of season ticket packages are available and will go on sale Sept. 9. Fans wishing to purchase new Notre Dame women's basketball season tickets may do so by contacting the Murnane Family Athletics Ticket Office (574-631-7356; UND.com/tickets or @NDTIX) weekdays during normal business hours (8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ET). Fans also should note the 2014-15 Fighting Irish women's basketball season ticket package does include admission to the ACC/Big Ten Challenge game against Maryland on Dec. 3 in Fort Wayne (to be played at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum).
There are numerous benefits to being a Notre Dame women's basketball season ticket holder (contact the ticket office or visit its web site for details), with one of those being the opportunity to purchase single-game tickets two days before the general public. Those pre-sale single-game tickets for season ticket holders go on sale Oct. 21, with the general public sale beginning on Oct. 23.
Last year, Notre Dame tied a program record by ranking fourth in the nation in attendance (8,694 fans per game), and placing among the top five in the country in attendance for the fifth consecutive season (as well as the top 16 for the past 14 years). In addition, the Fighting Irish averaged better than 8,000 fans per game for the fifth year in a row and have had 35 sellout crowds in that time (an average of seven per season).
What's more, Notre Dame fans filled Purcell Pavilion to better than 95 percent of its total capacity in 2013-14, the best of any school in the country. That support clearly produced yet another intimidating home court advantage and led to a perfect 17-0 record on the court, with no team other than the Fighting Irish that reached the NCAA Final Four or NCAA regional finals (Elite Eight) last year even managing to fill their arena to 70 percent of its capacity.
IRISH GIVING BACK TO SOUTH BEND COMMUNITY SEPT. 13-14
The Notre Dame women's basketball program has long been celebrated as a leader in the South Bend community throughout a variety of service projects, including the nationally-recognized Pink Zone (Play4Kay) breast cancer initiative that has raised nearly $750,000 in its six-year history, and the vast majority of those donations going to cancer charities across Michiana.
The Fighting Irish will once again be active in the community Sept. 13-14 with a pair of service events. On Sept. 13, Notre Dame women's basketball players and coaches will volunteer with Habitat for Humanity of St. Joseph County. From 9 a.m.-noon (ET), the Fighting Irish will put on their hard hats to help in the construction efforts at the 2014 Women Build Home, located at 1448 E. Corby Boulevard in South Bend. The players and coaches will be building and raising basement walls, installing windows and trim on the house, and begin to add siding to the home's exterior.
For more information on this worthwhile project, go online to https://www.habitat-for-humanity.org/womenbuild.
The next afternoon, the Notre Dame women's basketball team will head to Buetter Park (400 N. Spring Street in Mishawaka, Ind.) to take part in the 2014 Michiana JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes. The two-mile walk, which will be held rain or shine, begins at 2 p.m. (ET) and it holds a special significance for the Fighting Irish, who will be walking in honor of the team's operations specialist Katie Schwab and to raise money for JDRF (the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation). Schwab currently is undergoing care at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and has been hospitalized since June 9 following complications related to her own battle with Type 1 Diabetes, the affliction that JDRF is looking to help eradicate.
Fans wishing to learn more about the Michiana JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes, including ways to donate or register a team of their own, should go online to http://walk.jdrf.org/michiana.
Katie Schwab UPDATE
For those wishing to obtain regular updates on Schwab and her ongoing recovery, her family and friends have set up a page on the CaringBridge web site (http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/katieschwab).
Supporters who would like to send Schwab notes, cards or other words of encouragement are asked to send them to the Notre Dame women's basketball office (C113 Joyce Center, First Floor, Notre Dame, IN 46556) or to stop by the women's basketball office located at Gate 1 of Purcell Pavilion weekdays from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (ET). Members of the Fighting Irish staff continue to make regular visits to see Schwab and her family in Chicago and will be happy to deliver your messages -- we all believe the support shown by the Notre Dame women's basketball community (and others outside the Fighting Irish family) continues to do wonders to help speed Katie's healing, so thank you and keep those prayers and cards coming!
McGRAW EARNS COLONEL JACK STEPHENS AWARD
We started this update talking about awards and so it seems fitting that we close things out with another honor.
On Monday, Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw received the 2014 Colonel Jack Stephens Citizenship Award from the Michiana chapter of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA). The award is presented annually to a local resident (not affiliated with the military) who is working to make a difference in his or her community.
The award was first presented in 1997, and among its distinguished recipients are former Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian (1997) and University president Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. (1998).
Col. John J. "Jack" Stephens served in the Pacific during World War II, and his last Army assignment was as a professor of military science at Notre Dame. He also headed up Notre Dame's Army ROTC unit beginning in 1964 and earned his master's degree in guidance counseling from the University in 1967.
Col. Stephens later served as the University's assistant athletic director under his close friend, legendary athletics director Edward "Moose" Krause, and his successor, Gene Corrigan (who hired McGraw to her current post in 1987). Col. Stephens, who assisted Corrigan's successor, Dick Rosenthal with special projects and maintained an office in the Notre Dame athletics department until shortly before his passing in 1996, is buried alongside his wife, Almira (who passed in 2006), at the Cedar Grove Cemetery on the Notre Dame campus.
McGraw, a three-time consensus National Coach of the Year including the past two seasons, has spent her entire 27-year career at Notre Dame looking for ways to give back to the South Bend community. She has invested her time delivering food and gifts to hundreds of families in need through Saint Vincent DePaul's annual Christmas Basket Program. She also sponsors book drives for local elementary schools, and is relied upon on by the Food Bank of Northern Indiana as a monthly donor.
"She is a dynamic person, and I think she's well deserving of the award," said David Woods, founding officer of the Michiana chapter of MOAA.
FOLLOWING THE FIGHTING IRISH
For more information on the Notre Dame women's basketball program, sign up to follow the Fighting Irish women's basketball Twitter pages (@NDsidMasters or @ndwbb), like the program on Facebook (facebook.com/ndwbb) or register for the Irish ALERT text-messaging system through the "Fan Center" pulldown menu on the front page at UND.com.
-- Chris Masters, Associate Athletic Media Relations Director