Twin plays big part of Novosel success

Natalie Novosel edged Skylar Diggins to lead Notre Dame in scoring (15.1 ppg) and rebounding (4.0) in '11. Matt Cashore/US Presswire

Twins Natalie and Nathan Novosel might well finish their senior seasons sharing a unique bond as champions and All-Americans on the basketball court. The more important bond, the one that made it possible, is one familiar the world over.

It's nice to have someone who knows what you're going through. It's sometimes better to have someone who simply knows you.

And for what it's worth, if you don't have to share a car with that person, that would be swell.

Long before she was the leading scorer for a team that came within one possession of winning a national title last season, Natalie was the frustrated kid who couldn't buy a basket in her own backyard. Nathan, a 6-foot-5 forward for Division III University of Rochester, and older sister Shannon, a former all-conference 6-foot-1 center for the University of Evansville, were always bigger and stronger than Natalie, who even now is the lone sibling checking in shorter than 6 feet. The results in the games of one-on-one-on-one played outside the family home weren't pretty for anyone within earshot.

"I would lose every single game out in the backyard, and I would get so mad at them," Natalie said. "I'd throw the ball, I'd throw a tantrum, cry, swear; it was unbelievable how much of a sore loser I was. They really instilled my competitiveness in me and gave me that drive I have today. They put up with a lot."

The friction between the twins didn't stop when the games ended. Twins might share a special connection, but the sibling relationship between Natalie and Nate growing up was more along the lines of plugging an American cellphone charger into a European outlet. They played the same sport, took many of the same classes and generally couldn't get away from each other from dawn to dusk. Even when a measure of independence presented itself in the form of driver's licenses, they remained at odds, sharing -- to stretch that word to its breaking point -- an aging Ford Explorer.

It wasn't until late in high school that the two started to see eye-to-eye, at least metaphorically. Instead of the family living room serving as some sort of demilitarized zone in their cold war, they found themselves willingly talking to each other for hours on end. When they left for college, the distance that separated them only strengthened the bond.

If this season concludes with Notre Dame's second national championship, there is no doubt the writers of history will begin the story with the day local high school star Skylar Diggins committed to stay home.

The alliance forged by Natalie and Nate Novosel shouldn't be far behind. The former became a star player for Notre Dame. The latter saved the Irish from losing one.

Natalie made an immediate impact as a freshman for the Fighting Irish, averaging 20.6 minutes per game off the bench and doing something with that time that suggested a special skill set. The tantrums aside, all those childhood basketball battles against Nate and Shannon shaped her game. Going against two bigger defenders forced her to develop both a craftiness in sliding between bodies and an opportunism. Even in those limited freshman minutes for Notre Dame, she ranked 10th in the Big East in steals and got to the free throw line 90 times, five shy of the team lead.

But the expected next step as a sophomore turned out to be an unexpected step backward. Natalie lost her newfound place in the starting lineup after just four games and recovered neither it nor her confidence. She played far fewer minutes than she did as a freshman and her contributions tailed off across the board. Lost on the basketball court, struggling to balance the demands of athletic life with the academic rigors of a potential premed major, she leaned heavily on her brother -- the same one she had so often accused of phantom fouls when he bodied up in the backyard.

"I tend to internalize things, and he would be relentless," Natalie said. "He'd call me every day, make me talk to him so instead of internalizing it I'd end up venting to him. He knows me so well. It was great for him to do that for me."

In the midst of a breakout season in which he followed up freshman success by emerging as Rochester's leading scorer, Nate nonetheless understood her plight.

"It was a tough year for her, and we talked a lot throughout the year," Nate recalled. "Her frustration, it showed a lot through our phone calls because there were times when she was just ready to give up on things. I tried to just tell her that she's used to being the star player in every aspect of her career. As a sophomore, she had a lot of pressure on her, but I just tried to tell her that you've got to let that pressure off and play your game like you did in high school."

Her bounce-back junior year in South Bend reverberated all the way down U.S. 31 to Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

If you want to win a bet, ask a fan with no affiliation to the Fighting Irish who led the team in scoring and free throw attempts last season. As big a presence as Diggins has and as much as last season's NCAA tournament announced her arrival as a true superstar, it wasn't her. Novosel led Notre Dame in both categories. Diggins is the driving force behind the nation's No. 2 team, but like James Worthy to Magic Johnson or Joe Dumars with Isiah Thomas, Novosel emerged last season as the easily overlooked finisher who allowed Diggins to make the most of her playmaking capabilities.

"A lot of people say I'm the most improved player, but honestly, it was the most mentally improved," Natalie said of her junior campaign. "I felt like I was the same player I was sophomore year, but my mentality and my mental toughness was 180 degrees turned. I refused to be denied this past year. And as much as I want that sophomore year back, I would go through it again. It kind of made me the player I am today. It was worth it."

It's funny how things work out with twins, but if Natalie needed Nate's help to become the player she is now, the same is true in reverse. It was Natalie who always badgered and bribed Nate into going to the gym with her to get in some extra shots. She lived for basketball; he was just the right size for it. In truth, he was just as happy swimming, a sport he eventually gave up to focus on basketball with an eye toward the college opportunities it might provide.

"It wasn't that big a deal to me, but I've grown to just really enjoy it and it's really helped to shape who I am today," Nate said. "It's much more of a part of my life, or meaningful to my life, than it was early on."

His sister's basketball addiction continues to prove contagious. After Rochester made a run to the Sweet 16 of the Division III NCAA tournament last season, Nate was in the stands in Indianapolis to watch his sister score 22 points in a Final Four win against Connecticut and come so close to a championship against Texas A&M. A double major in economics and political science, he spent the summer as an intern on Capitol Hill for Rep. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.). So Nate has an eye on the future, but the once-ambivalent basketball player is now focused on leading a Rochester team ranked in the top 10 in Division III to the Final Four and the program's second national championship.

Sound familiar?

"He's the most underrated underdog," Natalie said. "He's always been one of the shortest guys in the paint, going up against 6-9 guys, 7-footers. I swear he always amazes me because he finds a way to score -- kind of like me going against him, he goes against even taller guys and uses his quickness and is crafty with the ball."

Their paths will diverge further after this school year, with Natalie hoping to play professionally and Nate moving into the "real world," as his sister put it, before a likely date with law school and a possible political career of his own. Days and weeks will pass when they don't talk, each too tied up in his or her immediate surroundings.

But when the need arises, well, twins just seem to understand each other.

"It's been nice to have someone go through the same thing that you're going through who you're so close to," Nate said. "[Someone] that you can talk about basketball with, talk about school, and all the struggles in between."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.