April 1, 2011
NOTRE DAME, Ind. (AP) - Notre Dame's first two losses didn't look good.
The Fighting Irish lost close games to ranked teams, but the way they happened really bothered coach Muffet McGraw. Notre Dame surrendered 86 points in a double overtime game against UCLA and 81 against Kentucky.
"We gave up a lot of points," she said. "That was our main problem."
There were offensive issues, too, on a team that lost four starters from the previous year's Sweet 16 squad.
"We hadn't quite jelled yet," McGraw said. "We weren't quite sure of what our roles were. We were still learning."
The Fighting Irish had one more rough outing - a loss to Baylor that dropped them to 5-3 - before they hit their stride and rolled to the Final Four. They lost just four more games - three against Connecticut, their opponent in the national semifinals on Sunday, and a one-point loss at DePaul. Notre Dame allowed just 55.5 points per game this season, ranked fourth nationally in steals per game and ninth in rebounding margin.
"We matured a lot as a team, and we were able to close out games," guard Natalie Novosel said.
Now, the Fighting Irish, who began the season ranked No. 12, have a shot at their first national title since 2001.
"I think we surprised a lot of people," guard Skylar Diggins said. "Coach told me we had an opportunity to do great things this year."
It just took a while. During the rough start, McGraw didn't panic because she'd been down that road before.
"We were 2-2 after the Kentucky game, and I told the team in the locker room the '97 Final Four team was 2-2," she said. "And we lost to two unranked teams."
So, instead of tearing her players down, she built them up.
"We're right there," she recalled telling them. "We've got to fix a couple of things, and we can be really good. I think they were able to stay positive and not really dwell on the losses."
The losses include Connecticut winning 79-76 on Jan. 8, 78-57 on Feb. 19 and 73-64 on March 8.
Diggins feels good about the chances of a different outcome this time around.
"This team has great excitement and great momentum coming out of the Dayton region, so we're excited to play them again," she said.
The offense improved as players adjusted to new roles. Notre Dame ranks fourth nationally in field-goal percentage and 11th with 77.4 points per game. Six players average at least 7.1 points per game, and the leading scorer is not the dynamic Diggins but Novosel. She has almost tripled her scoring production since last season and leads the team at 14.9 points per game.
"Everybody on the team is unselfish," McGraw said. "They look for each other. They work together, they play together. It doesn't matter who gets the points or who gets the attention, everybody just wants to win."
Novosel averaged just 5.0 points per game as a sophomore, but she became a go-to player this season. She has averaged 17.3 points in the NCAA tournament.
Novosel said she and McGraw agreed on an offseason plan that helped her become more effective. She made seven 3-pointers as a sophomore and 30 as a junior.
"Natalie is just a hard worker," Diggins said. "Her summer was great. She was the hardest worker in our summer group. Shot every day, faithfully, and she just really showed early that she was going to be one of the leaders of this squad this year."
Novosel is one of the main reasons the Fighting Irish aren't content with just getting to the Final Four.
"For a couple days, it was like, 'We're in the Final Four, we're in the Final Four," forward Becca Bruszewski said. "That excitement's a little over, and we want it to be something else."