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Irish Advance in NCAA's
By Alan Tieuli
The sophomore point guard and proud Indianapolis Pike grad groomed
the Irish (arranging for a collective, late-night head shave in his downtown hotel room),
dressed them (it was his choice for the team to wear gold uni's and blue socks), and
then physically led them on the floor. He
played every second of Notre Dame's 70-69 victory over Wisconsin-Milwaukee, scoring
27 points while collecting eight assists. It
was a performance that had its flaws, but so does every diamond. If you were one of the 21,250 fans at the RCA Dome
on this night, consider yourself lucky to have such a special viewing.
"What you saw," said head coach Mike Brey, "was a great example of a team
riding a player. If you take away his
daringness, we're not as good a basketball team."
It was questionable what type of squad Notre Dame had coming into this
one. Losers of four of five and six of 10
before the tournament, the Irish were fortunate to get a No. 5 seed and a home state
placement. Brey's gang was a trendy pick
to bow out in the first-round to the high-scoring Horizon League champions.
"A loss," said senior guard Matt Carroll, "would have really been
devastating. It would have put our season into
But, thanks to Thomas and his fellow underclassmen, not only is this
season extended, but suddenly 2003-04 looks pretty good too.
Freshman Torin Francis resembled Mike Sweetney, scoring a
career-high 23 points while snatching 14 rebounds. His
last two points were the game winners, a lay-up in traffic with 32.8 seconds remaining. In all, players who are slotted to be on the Irish
roster next year scored 56 of the 70 points.
"They picked me up, big-time," said Carroll, who was
saddled with foul trouble in the first-half, rolled an ankle in the second, and ended up
with a season-low two points in 14 minutes of play. It
was the first time in 38 games the All-Big East player did not score in double figures.
It was an atypical Irish performance.
Notre Dame was only three-for-13 on three-point shots, a season low for
makes, and it held Wisconsin-Milwaukee to 29 points in the first-half, only the third time
this calendar year the Irish have surrendered less than 30 the first 20 minutes.
"This is a fresh start for us," said Thomas. "We look
good with new haircuts, new shoes (spiffy, custom-made blue and gold Adidas shoes), new
uniforms and a new season. And we're 1-0."
The 23-9 Irish can bask in their renewal while Wisconsin-Milwaukee wallows
in what could have been. The 24-7 Horizon
League champs had two point-blank lay-ups by a first team All-Star, Dylan Page, in the
final minute. The 6-8 senior forward missed
the first with 53 seconds remaining, his team up one.
Thomas then smartly penetrated and made a sharp dish to sophomore Jordan Cornette, who failed on his lay-up attempt. But Francis secured the loose ball and scored with
Wisconsin-Milwaukee eschewed a time-out and another Horizon all-star,
Clay Tucker, dribbled time away 35 feet from
the basket. "It was the longest 30
seconds of our lives," said Cornette. "Our
entire season was resting on what this kid would do."
Tucker drove with skill and confidence, drawing three Notre Dame
defenders. He then made a perfect dump pass to
Page. There were three seconds left when Page
went up, and the season looked over.
But here is where Thomas again showed he is a special player. He left his man, came down and Page flinched. What could have been a game-winning dunk, turned
into an excruciating missed lay-up. Game over,
"I felt like I got a finger on the ball," said Thomas
"The shot went out, and just with the force of me hitting it, or hitting his arm, or
my presence behind him, it made him rush a little bit."
Thomas' defense at the end may have saved the day, and it was his
offense earlier in the half that set up the victory. After
Carroll left the game for good with his sprained ankle at the 15-minute mark, Thomas
scored 12 consecutive Notre Dame points,
moving the Irish into a 48-40 lead. The Irish
ultimately would squander that lead, but the point is that Thomas had willed his team into
a position to win while the team's leading scorer (20.6 per) was out of commission.
"If you had told me we would win without Matt Carroll, I would
have said that was bullcrap," Thomas said. "Matt
Carroll is too valuable."
Brey was using his own brand of expletives at halftime when he did his best impersonation of Terry Tate/Office Linebacke