Feb. 25, 2012
NOTRE DAME, IND. (AP) - Nothing comes easy in the BIG EAST. That's how coach Muffet McGraw sees it and why clinching a tie for the conference title Saturday was so satisfying.
The third-ranked Irish needed all their energy and talent Saturday in their final regular-season home game to beat a stubborn and relentless South Florida team 80-68 to earn at least a share of the league title.
`It's an amazing accomplishment for this group that has done so much for us over the last four years," McGraw said. "It's going to be really hard next year to go on without them because this is a group that is really in my heart. There's going to be a big hole there."
There's still plenty of hoops to be played - a regular-season finale Monday at UConn, where the Irish could clinch the title outright. They shared the championship with the Huskies back in 2001.
"I really don't want to share it," McGraw said.
Notre Dame has already clinched the top seed in the BIG EAST tournament by virtue of conference tiebreakers.
And after the BIG EAST tournament, the Irish will still get to play on their home floor, hosting the opening rounds of the NCAAs later next month.
"Each year has been different and I've absolutely loved each year even more. It's just been an amazing experience," said Novosel, a key player on last year's team that lost in the national title game. "I can't wait to keep playing.
On Saturday she was 9-of-16 from the floor and 12-for-12 from the line.
"I got my shot down and was able to go and get my confidence up early," she said.
Star guard Skylar Diggins added 18 for the Irish (27-2, 14-1), who set a school regular-season mark with their 27th victory. But this one was not easy against the scrappy Bulls (15-14, 7-8), who got 18 points apiece from Inga Orekhova and Jasmine Wynne.
The Irish, who trailed early in the second half, could not the Bulls away until Novosel led a late spurt.
Peters had a three-point play and Novosel hit a 3-pointer, added four free thows and then threw in a shot before the shot clock expired with about a minute left as the Irish finally pulled away with a 78-64 lead.
"Natalie Novosel is good, really good. She's probably one of the most underrated players in the country," USF coach Jose Fernandez said. "She can shoot it, she can score and also defends. She doesn't take a play off."
Andrell Smith had a pair of driving baskets and Sasha Bernard another as the Bulls scored the first six points of the second half and held the Irish scoreless for more than five minutes while taking a 44-41 lead.
Novosel hit a pair of free throws to break the drought and then Diggins made back-to-back steals and drove for layups both times as the Irish regained the lead. She had added two more free throws and another basket and her eight-point outburst left Notre Dame with a six-point cushion.
But Bernard's 3-pointer made it a two-point game before Peters hit on a follow and Kayla McBride had a basket go push it back to six with seven and a half minutes remaining.
Diggins hit a basket to put the Irish up five and then left the floor grabbing her left ankle with a little more than six minutes to go. Moments later she headed through a tunnel and then came back on the floor and re-entered the game with 5:33 remaining.
"We really needed her to come back and I knew she would," McGraw said
USF's Tahira Johnson, who had seven first-half points, had to be helped off with what Fernandez said was a hip injury with 13:58 left and being knocked to the floor under the basket.
"That really hurt us because she is aggressive and physical and can rebound," Fernandez said. "When she went out, it changed some things for us."
Brittany Mallory hit a 3-pointer just before the first half buzzer to give the Irish a 41-38 lead after a sluggish first 20 minutes that saw the Irish commit 14 turnovers. The Irish finished with 22 turnovers.
Now it's on to UConn for the Irish. They beat the Huskies in overtime earlier this season after knocking them out in the national semifinals last spring.
"Going into UConn we know that's going to be a physical game and a rough game. We got a little taste of it here," Peters said. "They weren't backing down played physical the entire game until the last second."
POST GAME NOTES: Notre Dame clinches a share of the BIG EAST Conference regular season championship, its second conference crown since joining the BIG EAST in 1995-96, and its first since a co-championship with Connecticut in 2000-01 ... Saturday's win (and St. John's' victory at home over Villanova) also assured the Fighting Irish of the No. 1 seed for the upcoming BIG EAST Championship -- Notre Dame also was the top seed in the 2001 conference tournament, losing in the title game to host Connecticut, 78-76 ... the Fighting Irish set a school record with their 27th regular-season win of the year, topping the 2000-01 club that ended the regular season with a 26-1 mark ... Notre Dame earns its 14th BIG EAST win of the season, the most victories the Fighting Irish have had in conference play since 2000-01, when they went 15-1 ... Notre Dame improves to 29-6 (.829) all-time on Senior Day, including a 22-3 (.880) record in the 25-year Muffet McGraw era, with wins in 22 of their last 24 Senior Day games ... the Fighting Irish jump to 8-2 all-time against USF, winning their fifth in a row over the Bulls, and taking a 4-1 series lead at Purcell Pavilion and a 6-2 edge since USF joined the BIG EAST in 2005-06 (although six of those eight BIG EAST matchups have been decided by 12 points or fewer) ... the Fighting Irish have scored at least 70 points in nine of 10 meetings with the Bulls, while USF has hit that total twice in the series ... Notre Dame is 26-5 (.839) all-time against Florida schools, including an active seven-game winning streak, and the Fighting Irish rise to 11-3 (.786) all-time against Florida schools at Purcell Pavilion ... Notre Dame reached the 80-point mark for the 14th time this season ... the Fighting Irish had at least three double-figure scorers for the 25th time this season ... USF tied an opponent season high with 14 steals (also by Akron in the season opener on Nov. 11), while Notre Dame's 22 turnovers were the most it has had in a game since Dec. 18, when the Fighting Irish also had 22 turnovers in a win over No. 8/7 Kentucky at Purcell Pavilion ... Notre Dame finished with at least 40 rebounds for the 18th time in the past 23 games, and posted a double-digit rebounding margin for the 14th time in that 23-game span ... for the second time in two weeks, the Fighting Irish had a player scored a career-high 32 points at Purcell Pavilion (tying for the fifth-highest single-game scoring total by a Notre Dame player in arena history), with senior guard/tri-captain Natalie Novosel's performance following on the heels of a similar outing by junior guard Skylar Diggins against West Virginia on Feb. 12 ... Novosel's 32 points are the most ever scored by a Notre Dame senior on Senior Day, and the second-most by any Fighting Irish player on Senior Day behind only then-junior Ruth Riley's 36 points against Miami (Fla.) on Feb. 22, 2000 ... Novosel's 12-for-12 afternoon at the free throw line ties for the third-best performance in school history, trailing only 13-for-13 days by Ashley Barlow (vs. Prairie View A&M on Dec. 28, 2006) and Ruth Riley (vs. Connecticut on Jan. 15, 2001) ... Novosel's perfect day at the line also was the best by a Fighting Irish player since March 25, 2008, when Charel Allen went 12-for-12 from the stripe in an overtime win over Oklahoma in the second round of the NCAA Championship in West Lafayette, Ind. ... with Saturday's effort, Novosel moved into third place on Notre Dame's career free throws made chart with 410, passing Megan Duffy (403 from 2002-06) ... fifth-year senior forward Devereaux Peters grabbed a career-high 18 rebounds, tying the Purcell Pavilion record for a Fighting Irish player, held by five others, most recently Ruth Riley against Duke on Nov. 21, 1998 ... Peters' 18 rebounds also are the most by a Notre Dame player since Jan. 13, 2007, when Erica Williamson grabbed 18 caroms in an overtime loss at USF ... Peters picked up her sixth 15-rebound game of the season, one shy of the school record of seven, set by Jane Politiski in 1977-78 (Notre Dame's first season of varsity competition, playing at the AIAW Division III level) ...Peters logged her fourth 15-point/15-rebound game of the season, tying the school record held by three other players, the most recent being Katryna Gaither in 1996-97 ... Peters recorded her team-high ninth double-double of the season (sixth in the past nine games), and the 20th of her career, the latter mark tying Sandy Botham (1984-88) for 10th on the Notre Dame all-time double-doubles chart ... Peters also moved up to 21st place on the Fighting Irish career scoring list with 1,218 points, passing Heidi Bunek (1,202 points from 1985-89) ... Peters moved into sixth place on Notre Dame's career rebounding chart with 845 boards, passing Lindsay Schrader (828 from 2005-10) ... the Fighting Irish senior class of 2012 (Novosel, Peters, fifth-year senior Brittany Mallory and senior guard Fraderica Miller) have helped Notre Dame to 109 wins in the past four seasons, tying the best four-year victory total by a senior class in school history (the 2000-01 seniors also won 109 games during their tenure) ... Notre Dame announced the donation totals for its fifth cornerstone events in its season-long "Heart of the Irish" community outreach program -- Teddy Bear Toss (more than 2,000 stuffed animals were gathered for the Riley Children's Hospital program), Food For Friends (more than 2,000 pounds of food were collected, enough to feed more than 500 people throughout the Michiana community), Reading One on One (approximately 1,500 children's books were collected distributed in the libraries of eight SBCSC primary schools as well as given to local children to take home), Pink Zone/Play4Kay (Notre Dame has raised $204,682 to date this year, with more donations still to be collected, for the Foundation of Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center and the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, lifting its four-year donation total to nearly a half a million dollars), and Splish Splash (3,000 pounds of bathroom supplies were collected to help 1,800 area women and children for more than a year).