Clinching a berth to the Final Four, the No. 2 seed Irish (30-7) line up against No. 1 seed and two-time defending national champion Connecticut (36-1) on Sunday at approximately 9:30 p.m. EDT (ESPN).
Natalie Novosel, a 5-foot-9 junior who stung the Volunteers with 17 points, savored the moment as she clenched a piece of white net and saw the sea of orange-clad Volunteer fans fade away.
Novosel grew up in Lexington, Ky., where the sight of orange is about as welcome as blight in the land of bluegrass.
“Trust me, I loved it,” Novosel said of the Irish’s first victory against the storied Tennessee program in 21 meetings.
Novosel helped Notre Dame replace 55 percent of last season’s offense lost to graduation. She moved from 5.0 points a game to 14.9, and is averaging 17.3 points in the NCAA Tournament.
After scoring 10 points or more just five times last season, she has done so 31 times this year. And she’s scored 20 or more points six times, something she never did last season.
Thanks to intense workouts in the summer, Novosel developed a 3-point shot. She went from seven 3s to 30, and bumped up her percentage from 35 to 41.
Big East Conference coaches took notice, naming her the league’s Most Improved Player.
“I knew what I wanted this year to be,” Novosel said. “That’s what motivated me. I wanted this to be a breakout year for me. Losing a lot of people, losing a lot of contributors, I wanted to be a leader for the team. I’ve gotten to the line a lot more. I’ve been really aggressive. And finishing, I’ve been doing a lot better at that.
“My claim to fame was always as a driver and a slasher, but Coach said if I extended my 3-point range, I’d be a lot more versatile, and a lot harder to guard. If they contest me, I can drive by them. If they lay back, I’m going to shoot over them.”
Irish captain Becca Bruszewski said that Novosel’s production has skyrocketed this season.
“She is tenacious,” Bruszewski said. “She’s just ready to go and always looking to score. She’s going to get there any way she can.
“Last year, she was a little more hesitant and a little more unsure. This year, she has all the confidence in the world, and we have tremendous confidence in her.”
Novosel has been playing in pain most of the season. Her knee trouble intensified just before the NCAA Tournament.
“I think the knees can last two more games,” Novosel said. “I hyper-extended my knee against UConn in the championship game of the Big East Tournament. Only time can heal it. Playing on it just doesn’t help, so it keeps getting irritated. But it’s not an issue in the game.”
Notre Dame point guard Skylar Diggins not only makes sweet music on the court, she hits the right notes off it as well.
After Notre Dame knocked off Temple in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Salt Lake City, the Fighting Irish band greeted the team at the airport.
Diggins then walked over to the band and broke out into song, “And there's a magic in the sound of their name. Here come the Irish of Notre Dame”
Diggins said that music has been a big part of her life.
“My Dad was a DJ,” Diggins said. “He ran a local recreation center, so he always put on sock hops, birthday parties and weddings and DJ stuff like that. I was about 11 or 12, and the equipment was always around the house. I got bored one day, so I just went down there and started messing with the equipment - thousands of dollars worth of equipment - and I started messing with it. I was pushing buttons and figured it out. He came home one day and said, ‘Wow, you’re really catching on to this.’
“I started doing my school parties, middle school parties and high school parties, and then I got asked to do birthday parties and weddings. I don’t do it that much now, because I don’t have enough free time. But my teammates know me as a music head. And I do a little singing, too.”
Conseco Fieldhouse is a home away from home for Diggins, who played there three times with South Bend Washington in state championship games. The Panthers won the crown on the Conseco court in 2007.
“This is exciting to go back to Conseco, because every time I’ve been there, it’s been an exciting moment for myself, my team and our program,” Diggins said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Diggins is hoping for a home-court advantage.
“We’re excited to be down there, we’re excited to be on kind of a home court, as far as our fans should go,” Diggins said. “We’ve got a lot of people ready to come and follow us, and hopefully we can upset Connecticut.”
Staff writer Curt Rallo: