How Sweet It Is!

"We're back and we're legitimate," Mike Brey said with conviction Saturday afternoon. Notre Dame's fifth victory over a Top 10 team -- 68-60 over Illinois -- was the sweetest victory for this program in nearly 20 years. The Irish are headed to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament and IrishEyes Magazine Managing Editor has all the details from a jubilant Notre Dame locker-room in Indianapolis. Off to Anaheim for a meeting with No. 1 Arizona.

Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes™

March 22, 2003

The Sweetest Feeling:
Notre Dame Moves On

By Alan Tieuli
IrishEyes Magazine

INDIANAPOLIS (IE) – Maybe we should all shave our heads. 

The new-look Notre Dame basketball team – lighter on top and now sturdier in stature – has advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 16 years, and what could be sweeter? 

"We are back and we are very legitimate as a big-time basketball program," said coach Mike Brey following his team's 68-60 victory over fourth-seeded, 10th ranked and comfortably favored Illinois. 

The 24-9 Irish were phenomenal on both ends of the floor for 40 minutes.  They shot lights out (11-for-16 on three-pointers) in the first-half while building a 47-34 lead.  After intermission, Notre Dame's interior defense flummoxed Big Ten Player of the Year Brian Cook (six-for-23 shooting) while point guard Chris Thomas did a masterful job of managing the game. 

This was hardly a Cinderella fluke.   Notre Dame, beating its fifth Top 10 team this season, played like a squad that not only deserved to advanced to the West Regional quarterfinals, it looked like a team that could win it. We'll find out soon enough: The Irish face West (and, theoretically, tournament) top-seed Arizona on Thursday (time TBD) at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, California. 

"It's not arrogant or anything like that, but we're not satisfied," said senior forward Dan Miller, author of a career-high 23 point effort and an easy story line for the national media covering Notre Dame for the first time.  "I've been here before, I know what it takes to keep advancing, and I'm going to do everything I can to teach these guys." 

Miller has now played in 11 NCAA games with his teams having a sterling 8-3 record.  Six of the victories came at Maryland from 1999-2001, including a trip to the Final Four.  He's never won the final game of the season, and that is driving Miller now. 

"Before this game, people had doubted our ability, our athleticism," said Miller, carefully choosing his words.  "And we knew we had work to do to earn respect.  Coach asked to step up when the games mean the most, and they never matter more than in March." 

Miller was an unconscious five-for-five in the first-half as Notre Dame never trailed in building leads of 8-0, 16-7 and 37-24.   Illinois closed to within one on a single occasion (21-20), but Miller hit back-to-back threes to set the Illini back on their heels. 

But Brey cut right to the core of the issue later in a jubilant, but not wild, Notre Dame locker-room. 

"People are talking about how good we were offensively," said Brey.  "The reason why we were so good is because we weren't taking the damn ball out of bounds.  Instead of pulling it out of the net (after an opposition's made shot) it was coming off the rim and we were getting transition stuff." 

Indeed, while Notre Dame's perimeter shooting was as good as it's been all year (13 three's matched a season high), the defense was remarkable.  The Irish held Illinois to its second lowest potential total, stifling a squad that had come in winning nine of its last 10 while outscoring the opposition by better than a dozen points per game. 

"They thought they were going to dominate inside," said sophomore forward Jordan Cornette, who turned in 30 minutes of tournament-worthy defense against the 6-10, NBA-bound Cook.  "People give us slack for being soft inside, but me, Torin Francis and Tom Timmermans were very set on changing those beliefs today." 

Francis struggled with his shot, making just one-of-nine, but he was a man on the boards once again, matching the 14 rebounds he collected against Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the first-round.  Timmermans had three rebounds in seven foul-plagued minutes but set a strong early tone. 

The play of the frontcourt was so dominating, when Cornette came out of the game for the final time, with the result secure, Brey rushed off the bench area and greeted the Cincinnati Kid with a forearm shiver to the chest. 

"I was just so proud of him," Brey said, noting Cornette's five rebounds and three blocks.  Francis put a punctuation mark on the Irish interior effort when he had a "Get that weak stuff out of here" block on James Augustine with 5:30 left, ND up 61-52. 

All of this from a team that allowed 95 points to Rutgers -- Rutgers! -- just 21 days ago.

"It's ironic because we haven't played defense in so long," said Thomas, never at a loss for the perfect quote to sum up the moment. "But when they needed a three, we were jumping out (Illinois was five-for-17 from beyond the stripe).  Inside, our guys were amazing.  And Dan Miller set the leadership tone." 

The Irish effort was so thorough, they didn't need an All-Big East effort from a "50-percent" Matt Carroll.  Playing with a sprained left ankle, Carroll had 11 points in 31 gutsy minutes.  The senior was limited in what he could do (two rebounds, no assists or turnovers created), but he spotted up for three successful three-point shots. Top Stories