NEW YORK -- Both Skylar Diggins and Devereaux Peters are strong-minded, opinionated women so don't read too much into it if you hear them engage in some R-rated language every now and then. Last week following a blowout win over Tennessee, Peters admitted that she and Diggins will curse each other on the court one minute and be fine the next, and when her words were read back to Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw, the coach let out a hearty laugh.
"I'm sure that the [Notre Dame] priests were not really happy to read that and even I cringed a little when Devereaux said that," McGraw said. "It's unusual for women to be able to do that, but it's great for the coaches because we don't have to be the bad guys when they hold each other so accountable. Those two hold each other to a high standard and their expectations are so high that they can get on each other. And I love a point guard [Diggins] who can get on people, bring their best out, and still be a leader who is respected."
Things were strictly G-rated between pals Diggins and Peters on Saturday afternoon during a 71-56 win over a feisty St. John's team, though Red Storm fans were likely cursing the Notre Dame duo out of respect. A 6-2 fifth-year forward with boundless energy and arms that seemingly extend to Canada, Peters finished with 18 points, 15 rebounds, five blocked shots and four steals. Diggins, a junior guard and Player of the Year candidate, had a game-high 24 points to go along with six assists and three blocks. The two combined for 42 points on 17 of 27 shooting. "We both have extremely strong personalities," said Peters, when asked how graphic the language gets between she and Diggins. "When Sky gets upset, she yells and people get silent. But being who I am, I yell back, too. Nobody takes it personally and it doesn't happen often, but when it does, it does. We just want to make each other perfect."
Notre Dame (21-1, 8-0 Big East) has been close to perfect this season. The win over St. John's (13-8, 5-3) was the team's 18th consecutive victory, the third longest winning streak in program history and its longest run since it won 23 consecutive games to open the 2000-01 season. The Irish entered the game leading the nation in scoring offense (84.5 points), and ranked second in steals (14.4 spg), assists (20.0), field goal percentage (.491) and scoring margin (34.8 ppg) "And I still don't think we've played our best game yet," said Diggins, who leads the Big East assists-to-turnover ratio and whose teams are now 81-15 since she arrived at Notre Dame three years ago.
Two first half runs, including an early 19-2 run and a late 14-0 run, gave Notre Dame a 20-point halftime lead. The Irish were sloppy with their shot selection in the second half -- St John's cut the lead to 11 and outscored Notre Dame in the second half -- but the No. 2 ranked team had too much scoring depth and too much Diggins and Peters. "They are really a special group, the way they share the basketball, find each other, make extra passes, plus Peters is playing outstanding," said St. John's coach Kim Barnes Arico, whose team has faced both top-ranked Baylor and Notre Dame this season. "I would find it hard for someone to beat them down the stretch the way they are going."
Notre Dame entered the season at No. 2, their highest ranking since the final poll of the 2000-01 season, and returned six of their top seven scorers, including Diggins, the Big East preseason player of the year, Natalie Novosel, a senior guard who is averaging 15.4 points and Peters, the 2011 Big East defensive player of the year. The squad has been bent on redemption all season. In last year's title game in Indianapolis, Notre Dame blew a 48--41 lead to Texas A&M early in the second half. The final score -- Texas A&M 76, Notre Dame 70 -- is written on the main whiteboard in Notre Dame's locker room.
So far the Irish have played with the urgency a champion needs. Notre Dame's only loss came at Baylor on Nov. 20, a game that wasn't as close as the 94-81 final. Baylor center Brittney Griner finished with 32 points and 14 rebounds and sophomore point guard Odyssey Sims controlled the perimeter with 25 points, six assists, six steals. McGraw said she does not think about that game often, but believes her team is better than it was in Waco two months ago. "Maybe if we were undefeated and No. 1 in the country we would be a little more complacent," McGraw said. "This keeps you hungry because there is somebody ahead of you."
Notre Dame's immediate task is a road game at No. 11 Rutgers on Tuesday. In late February, the team will travel to Hartford to face the No. 3-ranked Huskies after they snapped Connecticut's 57-game Big East winning streak earlier this month. Prior to last year's national semifinals, UConn had beaten Notre Dame 12 straight times. "Now we have beaten them back to back," said McGraw. "I think that's continued to feed our confidence."
That confidence grew last week after a 72-44 pounding of Tennessee, the worst loss suffered by the Lady Vols in 28 years, and the fewest points scored by a Tennessee team in Pat Summitt's coaching career. McGraw said the defense played by the Irish that night was as good as she's ever had a team play, especially because Notre Dame did not press much. One place the Irish must improve is rebounding -- Diggins said the team has been working hard on the defensive glass and making better decisions in transition -- because Notre Dame is undersized in the post. It's also why Peters must stay out of foul trouble -- her bugaboo -- because she's a terror when she plays extended minutes. She is averaging 18 points and 9.2 rebounds over her last five games. "She's long, she's athletic and she's relentless on the boards," said Diggins. "We need Devereaux in the game. When people see her in there, they change their shot. You see the blocks and the steals, and she's someone who can guard either a guard or a post player."
McGraw described her team as more businesslike than previous Irish teams, and she's marveled at how this group has used last year's championship loss to self-motivate. "I'm really pleased with the way we are improving, and I love the way this team is ready for a challenge," McGraw said. "We go into practice with something to fix and they are completely engaged with how we can get better. They want to be challenged. We never talk about, 'Wasn't that a great game? or 'We beat UConn, wasn't that awesome?' For this group, it's let's move on to the next game."