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Monday, April 2, 2012
Irish's master of the unconventional

By Graham Hays
espnW

DENVER -- In a city where streets still serve as backdrop for a few Tim Tebow jerseys, you have to be careful talking about a player with an unorthodox style and an undefinable knack for winning.

But if it isn't always easy to explain exactly how Notre Dame senior Natalie Novosel does what she does, she is much more than a curiosity.

"She's somebody who would like the ball in her hands," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "She's not bothered by the pressure of the moment."

Novosel is the master of the unconventional, twisting, turning and even tumbling her way toward the basket, the ball emerging at an impossible angle amongst a thicket of arms to find its way into the hoop. She seeks out contact, thrives on it, but never seems to get the worst of it. Nobody in the women's game plays quite like her and few have produced as many clutch points in big games.

Natalie Novosel
If there are bodies diving for loose balls, the ever-competitive Natalie Novosel is usually in the thick of it.

"She's very deceptive in her game," Notre Dame fifth-year post Devereaux Peters said. "I remember watching her practice [early in Novosel's career], and she would just do moves and you would be like, 'Where did that come from? How did you even do that?' She's just an amazing player, and I think a lot of people take for granted how creative she is at getting to the basket. It really shows with how many times she's at the foul line. You think you can block the shot, you think you have the upper hand on her, and she does some ridiculous move that gets you out of position."

Notre Dame has a game still to play Tuesday night because of that finishing ability. Trailing Connecticut by two points in the closing seconds of regulation in Sunday's semifinal, Novosel corralled an offensive rebound and tied the game with a putback. That she first slipped to the far side of the basket and spun the ball back in like a golfer drawing a short iron back to the hole was par for the course for a player dubbed both "White Chocolate" and "Nasty" by her teammates for her physics-defying arsenal of moves.

"When you got the rebound, Nat, could you just put it straight up?" Notre Dame associate head coach Jonathan Tsipis teased Novosel later. "It wouldn't have been you if you had just shot it in, made a regular layup."

Notre Dame doesn't need to get lucky to beat Baylor on Tuesday night. It can win on its own merits, even if it enters the championship game as the underdog against an undefeated team with few obvious vulnerabilities. It will, however, have to get creative to combat a defense that is unquestionably unique and arguably without peer. There is no challenge in women's basketball quite like going into the paint against 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, as the Fighting Irish learned when they shot 39 percent and turned over the ball 17 times against just 11 assists in a loss to Baylor earlier this season.

The Fighting Irish wouldn't be the team they are without [Natalie Novosel]. She is the penetrator and shooter who can play off of what [Skylar] Diggins does at point guard, or create spaces in the defense that free Diggins for her own shots. And alongside the hyper-extroverted [Devereaux] Peters and Diggins, she's an equal who's nonetheless content to command less of the spotlight.

But in Novosel, who scored 28 points and got to the free throw line 15 times in that game, they do have a model of both the perseverance and adaptability they will need.

Start with that one-of-a-kind shot-making style. While Nathan and Shannon Novosel aren't Griner, Natalie's 6-foot-5 twin brother and 6-foot-2 older sister tested their younger and smaller sister's creativity and patience through countless driveway games growing up in Kentucky.

"I'd try and get past one of them and the other one would be standing there in the paint, so it was definitely a difficult situation," Novosel said earlier this season. "I wasn't just going to go in there and muscle up with them; that was never going to work. I had to figure out other ways to score, so I had to find ways to be crafty with the ball and use my quickness to my advantage and my outside shot."

Those lessons are the root of the skills that brought Novosel to Notre Dame, and the skills that make her so different to watch, but they weren't the last time she had to adjust to keep from letting basketball get the best of her. After playing more minutes than any other reserve as a freshman for the Fighting Irish, she opened her sophomore season as a starter. Yet she found herself on the bench in short order, displaced by a combination of her own inconsistency and a freshman by the name of Skylar Diggins.

Novosel's minutes tumbled and her frustration mounted. Her brother recalled phone conversations that season in which it sounded to him like she had reached the end of her rope, and with good reason.

"There was a point where I wanted to transfer," Novosel said. "But at the same time, it was more of a pride thing. I just refused to be that one to transfer, to give up. Two of my other classmates ended up not staying with me, Erica Solomon and Kellie Watson, and I didn't want to be that person to transfer as well. So I think my own pride stood in the way, to be honest. As much as I hated that year, I really grew up and matured."

There weren't conversations with coaches specifically about her status -- thoughts of transferring were largely confined to her own head or those conversations with her brother -- but after the season, McGraw told Novosel she knew she wasn't happy with her playing time and didn't want her to be happy with it. She told the player that with a large group of seniors moving on, the opportunity was hers to seize.

Natalie Novosel
Around the rim especially, Natalie Novosel "is the master of the unconventional, twisting, turning and even tumbling her way toward the basket," Graham Hays writes.

McGraw's top assistant and the coach who worked the most with Novosel and the wings, Tsipis just tried to keep her focused on the future rather than festering in the present, but he acknowledged there was a time when it was far from certain that she would finish her career in South Bend.

"I think the big thing was just weather the storm a little bit and try to get her through there and just know it was one of those things that as soon as we were done playing, she needed a little time away from us," Tsipis said. "Just trying to stay positive with her. You know when a kid starts at the beginning of the year, and at the end of the year she's not starting and her minutes are fluctuating, there are going to be some questions."

Novosel came back her junior year and wasted little time earning minutes and proving her value. From playing 15 minutes a game as a sophomore, she emerged as Notre Dame's leading scorer as a junior and trailed only Diggins in minutes. The Fighting Irish wouldn't be the team they are without her. She is the penetrator and shooter who can play off of what Diggins does at point guard or create spaces in the defense that free Diggins for her own shots. And alongside the hyper-extroverted Peters and Diggins, she's an equal who's nonetheless content to command less of the spotlight.

"The way that she drives the ball is just different from any other guard we've seen," Notre Dame assistant Niele Ivey said. "She's just explosive going to her left or right. She's really crafty -- they call her 'Nasty' just because the way she scores is so incredible. She does a great job of being able to create offense for herself. Not a lot of guards can do that, and it's just amazing to see how she can."

Novosel didn't win many of those backyard games against Nathan and Shannon, and she didn't deal well with losing, pitching profane tantrums in defeat. But whatever "ice water" now runs through her veins, as McGraw described the senior's ability to take big shots, is the product of all those times her blood boiled.

"Few and far between," Novosel said of wins against her siblings. "But it was kind of like gambling; you win once and then you just can't help but keep playing, no matter how many times you lose. I was relentless. I would beckon them back on the court, knowing the end result, knowing what they were getting themselves into. And I would be the last one on the court again because I'd run them off because I'd be crying or throwing the ball at them and stuff.

"It was an addiction to winning, and I think that really helped develop my competitiveness."

It wasn't the easiest road to Tuesday night, but Novosel has always been good at doing things the hard way.