- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Junior guard Natalie Novosel says nothing intimidates Notre Dame and discusses her offseason improvements.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Notre Dame found itself right at home during Sunday's semifinal against Connecticut, and it had absolutely nothing to do with Conseco Fieldhouse's mailing address sharing a state abbreviation with South Bend.
In the span of a single possession during the game, Fighting Irish players Skylar Diggins and Brittany Mallory each took a shot to the nose. A few plays later, perhaps feeling left out, forward Natalie Novosel made it three of a kind for the black and blue in green and gold, picking up what coach Muffet McGraw described as a bloody nose of her own.
The fan support is nice. So is the relatively short drive north to campus. But it seems the Fighting Irish are most at home in pain.
"It was a street fight," McGraw said. "That's the kind of game they like."
Forget the 30-second shot clock; Notre Dame is more interested in the standing eight count.
"If you look at us, we're not intimidating at all," Novosel said. "But I think that kind of serves as an advantage for us because we'll go out there and play with you. We're just as tough, if not more. I think we're able to out-tough people because we don't let them push us around. I think that's one thing that's a big key for us."
And if Notre Dame is going to win a national championship on Tuesday night (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET) against a Texas A&M team rightly lauded for the way its aggressive, tough defense took apart No. 1 seeds Baylor and Stanford in the past two rounds, both Novosel and Mallory must continue making their cases as two of the toughest players in the bracket and linchpins for Notre Dame on offense and defense, respectively.
In the wake of a 72-63 win against Connecticut to advance to the national championship game against Texas A&M, no player wore the pain of victory more proudly than Mallory. The redshirt junior, who was noncommittal Monday about the prospect of returning for a potential fifth season, took questions after the win against the Huskies with her shoulder wrapped following a hard fall that briefly knocked her out of action in the first half. As for the shot to the nose that preceded the jolt to the shoulder, she noted nonchalantly that the initial burst of pain almost made her throw up.
In other words, it was a typical day at the office.
"Brittany, she's down more than anybody," McGraw said. "She's on the floor, I don't know, a couple of times a game, for sure."
Of all the lockdown defenders in college basketball, including two of the best in Texas A&M's Sydney Carter and Connecticut's Kelly Faris on hand in the Final Four, Mallory might be the least likely to fit the profile of the role. Her alter ego is a deadeye 3-point markswoman, a physically unimposing 5-foot-10 guard who spots up on the wing when Diggins or Novosel drives to the basket and who hits shots at a 41 percent clip from the 3-point line.
In most cases, a talent like that makes a shooter the equivalent of a pastry chef in a team's kitchen -- important to the overall bottom line and undeniably highly skilled, but unlikely to be caught washing dishes or chopping vegetables for the salad. Yet there's absolutely nothing cream puff about the way Mallory plays defense or throws herself around.
"It's kind of unheard of, actually," McGraw said, going back to current assistant coach Niele Ivey to find the last player who was arguably her team's best one-on-one defender and 3-point shooter. "When you go recruiting and you see somebody who can shoot, they generally can't defend. It's almost like a euphemism for poor defenders -- 'Great 3-point shooter.' They're few and far between. And she has developed into that. She didn't come in as a great defender, but she's just so determined. She has all the intangibles that help her really guard people."
Mallory grew up playing basketball and lacrosse, a sport with mass appeal near her Maryland roots and one which certainly invites its share of physical play, even if the women's game is, like basketball, theoretically a noncontact endeavor. She tried softball, but the slow pace got on her nerves. The players she now guards are familiar with the sentiment. Mallory is neither the fastest nor the strongest defender. But she is smart, and like all good defenders left on the proverbial island, able to anticipate moves several steps in advance. She is also not above some of the dark arts that mark a good defender's game -- things like the subtle tug of a jersey or redirection with a forearm or hip.
"I appreciate the fact that she is annoying," Fighting Irish senior Becca Bruszewski said. "She is an annoying defender; she is an absolute pest. She's always there, and she's always able to get her hands on the ball when it swipes through and able to get steals at crucial times. She's just relentless on defense, and I think that's something she's really taken pride in and really been aware of what she needs to do and that's what the team needs. She's just worked so hard on it, and that's why we put her on the best player because she's able to handle them, control them and kind of contain."
As McGraw noted, Novosel doesn't spend quite as much time lying on the floor as Mallory, but she's adept at bringing the opposition to its knees -- or at least putting opposing players on the bench in foul trouble.
As good as Diggins has been, it's still Novosel who leads the Fighting Irish in scoring this season at 15.1 points per game. And as much as Diggins and Texas A&M's Danielle Adams get to the free throw line, it's still Novosel who leads all players in Tuesday's championship game in free throw attempts with 228 this season.
Novosel picked up her third foul with less than a minute to play in the first half of the semifinal win. She still managed to get to the free throw line seven times in the second half, playing 18 minutes and scoring 18 points in the half without ever picking up her fourth foul. The aberration of the first half aside, few players -- perhaps even Diggins -- are more comfortable with contact than the junior from about three hours south of here in Lexington, Ky.
"I think I just tried to avoid some of the contact so there wouldn't be iffy calls where they could call a charge on me," Novosel said of her ability to keep playing her physical game with three fouls for an entire half. "Other than that, I just started being aggressive. If I saw them getting position, I would try and take the pull-up. Even with the and-ones, though, I just wanted to create the contact but not enough for them to call a charge on me."
Nicknamed "Nasty" in high school, a moniker that stuck once teammates at Notre Dame got a look at her game, Novosel has a dizzying array of offensive moves and an uncanny ability to square her shoulders to the basket while the rest of her body drifts any which way to avoid bigger defenders inside. And like Mallory, that present skill set owes something to her roots. In Novosel's case, playing and losing a lot of one-on-one games against a 6-1 older sister and a 6-5 twin brother, Nathan, who now plays for the University of Rochester.
"We would have battles in the backyard, and I would lose game after game," Novosel said. "And it would make me so mad, and I think that's what helped my competitiveness now. And them being so tall, I became a lot more crafty and just clever in my ways of scoring."
So as for the obvious question, who would come out the worse for wear if Mallory had to guard Novosel for 40 minutes?
"It would probably be really close," Mallory mused. "I feel like I would because she can contort her body in different ways and I'll probably get kicked in a way I didn't think I was going to. That would be a tough battle. She's told me she doesn't like when I guard her in practice, and I've told her I hate guarding her in practice because she has these moves that catch you off guard. I'm glad she's the player I don't have to guard."
If Notre Dame hopes to cut down the net on Tuesday night, Texas A&M will need to feel similarly black and blue at the end of 40 minutes.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Much has been made of Texas A&M's defense, and with good reason. But Brittany Mallory and Natalie Novosel give Notre Dame a physical presence that opponents fear.