SOUTH BEND, Ind. – South Florida came into the Purcell Pavilion unfazed by playing the No. 3 team in the country in its regular-season home finale.
The Bulls scrapped, attacked the basket and even forged a lead early in the second half but couldn't maintain it to pull off the big upset of Notre Dame, falling 80-68 on Saturday.
"This group has battled all year," coach Jose Fernandez said, reciting a list of close games and near misses.
Natalie Novosel scored a career-high 32 points and Devereaux Peters added 17 points and a career-high 18 rebounds for the Irish, who clinched at least a tie for the Big East title.
South Florida got 18 points apiece from Jasmine Wynne and Inga Orekhova and forced Notre Dame into 22 turnovers.
"We're up three, had a transition break to go up five and then got a little winded," Fernandez said. "Notre Dame was able to string some buckets. We went from three up to four down."
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 Skylar 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. She couldn't come back.
"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."
South Florida (15-14, 7-8) will now go home to finish the regular season against Providence and hope to finish .500 in the league.
"Honesly three, four five or six possessions it would be very different, maybe 10-6 or 11-5," Fernandez said of the tight games the Bulls couldn't pull out. "We got to get Monday and string some wins in the Big East tournament."
Notre Dame still has played of hoops to play, a well, including 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.
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.
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 Fernandez said. "She can shoot it, she can score and also defends. She doesn't take a play off."
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.
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."