South Bend, IND — When people think or hear about Notre Dame Women’s basketball team, the first name that comes to their mind is probably Skylar Diggins.
And rightfully so.
You’re talking about one of the most popular and transcendent basketball players in recent memory. She has accomplished so much in her storied career: a three-time All American, 2012 Big East Player of the Year, and the Nancy Lieberman Award just to name a few.
Nevertheless, there is another player that is sometimes overshadowed although her light sparkles like a shining star for those that watch often: Kayla McBride.
McBride, the 5-foot-11 junior from Erie, Pennsylvania makes up one-third of Notre Dame’s lethal backcourt. This past Saturday, she scored a career-high 21 points and was a vital component in helping Notre Dame upset #1 Connecticut at home, a feat that has only been done by one other team in five years, St. John’s
“I think it’s a special feeling, especially for this team,” said McBride. “After the people that we lost last year, I think a lot of people kind of overlooked us; we lost three out of our five starters, so it was a huge loss. Just for us to be able to make up for that and to come into UConn — the No. 1 team in the country – and in a hectic environment, to be able to do that, it just shows a lot; and the confidence that we have in each other.
“I think it starts with Coach (Muffet) McGraw and it starts with Skylar too. It’s not about the name on (another team’s) chest; it’s about the pride that we have here at Notre Dame. Skylar’s a senior and she’s been there, she’s beaten UConn already — she can look us in the eye and be like ‘we don’t have to be scared of them.’ That makes it a lot easier.”
While her physical talents are immense and obvious, it’s her mindset that sets her apart — it has made her the special player that she has become. In today’s culture of “Me, Myself and I”, McBride is the polar opposite; she’s always willing to listen even if it’s a tough critique from Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw — a woman that McBride laughingly calls “intimidating.” A prime example of that came after their upset of UConn, which reverberated around the women’s basketball world; McGraw made it a point to say something to her star junior after the game.
“Front row on the plane and coach – I just scored 21 points and had my career-high – and coach was like, ‘K-Mac, have you watched the film?’,” said McBride. “And I was like, ‘No, coach why?’ She’s like, ‘You need to box out.’ It’s not even about what I did on the offensive end; it’s about the little things. It’s about that competitive (edge); she doesn’t want anybody to get more rebounds than us.
“She doesn’t care what the score was and that’s why she’s very intimidating: she isn’t looking at the made baskets, she’s looking at me missing box outs.”
Many players might have brushed off such an assessment, figuring the coach was being too “picky”. However, instead of doing that and basking in the moment of her performance, she actually appreciated that observation by her coach. That willingness to listen, to be a student of the game on a consistent basis, has helped mold McBride into the player she is today.
“She just pulls everything out of you, even when you don’t want to do it; she’s going to pull it out of you,” McBride said. “That’s something I admire about Coach McGraw so much. Because she makes me get better — and I respect that, she sees my potential. It’s just that fire and competitive nature (that she has).”
One consistent theme is that McBride, who by nature has myriad wonderful traits – fun-loving, charismatic and humble – also has a couple attributes that she has and admires in others: competitive nature and paying attention to the little things.
Her favorite basketball player is Michael Jordan but not just for the simple reasons that many might presume – the six championships, earth shattering dunks, arsenal of moves on the court. No, it’s for something minute that the average basketball eye might overlook, yet seems essential for a basketball savant like McBride: Jordan’s mid-range game.
“I think it was his mid-range game,” said McBride. “My dad always instilled in my brain ever since I (picked up) a basketball (that) the mid-range game is where it’s at. Jordan may not have had always the best three-point percentage, but he was deadly from 15 to 18 feet. If (someone) said he couldn’t do something, he was going to prove you wrong. He never settled.
“I remember I had this DVD, special edition of all his highlights and I would literally play it over and over again. I love the fire and competitive attitude (he had).”
Another aspect that has been paramount to the growth of McBride is the aforementioned Diggins. Diggins — whom her teammates refer to as “Sky” — has been such a guiding light. Her exploits on the court sometimes overshadow the fire that resonates within. Her will to win has been so infectious upon her teammates, especially McBride.
“Since I got on this campus, since I came to Notre Dame, Skylar is the most competitive person I’ve met period,” said McBride emphatically. “If we’re racing, we’re going to race until she wins and that is so contagious. It starts in practice, when we come into (the gym), all eyes are on Skylar, (and) we’re looking at her. She (has) a competitive, calming presence, like when Skylar has the ball, we’re like, ‘OK, we’re good.’ When she is making plays and it’s so contagious.
“Her will to win, (like) in the huddle, she looks us in the eye and she’s like, ‘We are going to do this.’ And you believe her because of the way she’s saying it — you know she believes it and that passion you see in her eyes when she’s telling you, it’s so contagious. I love playing with her, she’s like my sister.”
During the off-season, McGraw approached her rising junior to implore more out of her. With the Irish losing two-thirds of their starting backcourt, it was essential for McBride to understand the importance of stepping up. Never the one to shirk accountability, McBride was true to form as she accepted the challenge that was being heaped on her shoulders.
Knowing the task that was ahead of her, she worked harder, rising to the occasion like a true winner.
“I think it’s a confidence thing, it starts in practice,” said McBride. “What coach asked of me after Natalie (Novosel) left — (who) was a prime-time player for us; she was a big-time shot maker — since day one, since before the summer, she said, ‘Kayla, I need you to score. I need you to be confident, I need for you to be a leader, (and) I need you to be all of these things.
“Ever since then, it’s kind of like I put that on my back, I’m a junior now. I think it’s a luxury that I’ve seen the Natalie Novosel’s, Devereaux Peters’, and the Brittany Mallory’s — those players who played at a high level. I was just waiting (for) my time, it never seemed like (stepping up) was a hard thing to do, that’s all I know, that’s I’ve seen.”
With that kind of attitude, she is on the cusp of reaching her full potential. McBride’s star is bright, but her future is even brighter.