"I hated that," Novosel said of getting burnt in what turned out to be a 79-76 Irish home loss top the Huskies on Jan. 8. "I refused to let that happen again. I really took it to heart when coach (Muffet McGraw) told me ‘You’re a liability, and we need you to play better defense.’ "
A two-time state champion at Kentucky’s Lexington Catholic, the 5-foot-11 Novosel steeled herself to develop defensive toughness for the Irish down the stretch.
Notre Dame will be counting on Novosel’s defense Tuesday night, when the No. 8 Irish (20-4 overall, 9-1 Big East) host Seton Hall (7-15, 0-9). Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.
McGraw wanted Novosel to emerge as a defensive stopper this season. Instead, while Novosel posted big numbers offensively, she struggled defensively.
"I hated that feeling," Novosel said of getting beaten off the dribble. "It was the worst feeling, because my teammates would have to bail me out, and they would end up getting fouls, and they would have to go out of the game. And I would stay in the game. It was really my fault."
Novosel, who leads Notre Dame in scoring with an average of 15 points a game, worked on honing her defensive skills. She worked on her positioning, her discipline to not leave her feet. She pored over scouting reports. She sharpened a razor-like competitive edge.
It worked. And Monday Novosel was named to this week’s Big East Honor Roll for leading Notre Dame to victories against Syracuse and South Florida.
"Natalie’s been playing really well defensively," McGraw said. "We keep track of who gives up how many points, and she has been giving up the fewest the last couple of games, so I’m really pleased with that."
Novosel said that she arrived at Notre Dame with a defensive mind-set.
"Interestingly, in high school, I was labeled the best defender in the state," Novosel said. "I tried to carry that into college, but there’s a big difference between high school and college. It definitely didn’t carry over.
"I worked hard to get used to the college game and do what coach wanted. I worked hard to get in shape. That has helped. The rotation is a lot different, and how crucial team defense is.
"The game is a lot quicker, and everybody is a lot better, which is why team defense is critical."
Novosel’s defense is helping her gain momentum for the Big East Conference’s annual Most Improved Player award. She has gone from averaging 5.0 points and 2.2 rebounds a game last season to 15.0 points, eighth-best in the Big East, and 4.0 rebounds a game this season.
Her shooting percentages have jumped from 43 percent field-goal shooting and 76 percent free-throw shooting to 48 and 78 percent, respectively, the latter figure good for seventh-best in the Big East.
Her 49 steals are tied for first on the team this season, already topping last season’s mark of 47 thefts.
"I think Natalie and Devereaux Peters are in a dead heat for the most improved honor," McGraw said. "I think Natalie probably has a slight edge, just because she got so much better on her own.
"Dev just got healthy and got better, too. I don’t think anybody in the league has improved as much as Natalie. She went from not being mentioned on the scouting report to being featured on the scouting report. We’re a lot better than people thought we would be, and she’s one of the reasons."