The Heart of a Champion

You don't win Division titles without talent, and you certainly can't defend them without heart. After the first two games of this Big East road trip, it's evident Notre Dame has the character necessary to stay at the top of the West Division. Alan Tieuli reports courtside on a pulsating 56-53 victory at Pittsburgh's sold-out Fitzgerald Field House.

Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com™

January 12, 2002

Graves, Irish
Finish Like Champions

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service

PITTSBURGH (IE) – There's no disputing that Notre Dame has the heart needed to defend its West Division title in the Big East Conference.

The Irish have onions, evidenced by an 18-point comeback Wednesday in West Virginia and an even more satisfying 56-53 victory over No. 23 Pittsburgh Saturday night at the sold-out Fitzgerald Field House. Notre Dame, 12-3 overall and 2-1 in the Big East, trailed the hosts by five with 2:43 remaining and scored the last eight points.

"We got a tough bunch of guys," said coach Mike Brey. "They always believe they got a chance to win it. They're men."

Senior David Graves was the hero, hitting two three-point baskets in the final surge, including the game-winner with 54 seconds remaining. He had been 2-for-11 from the field before the two treys.

"I've always been confident, I've always wanted to take those shots," said Graves, who finished with 12 points in 35 minutes. "Coach could easily have taken me out."

Notre Dame won with heroic offense at the end and virtually impenetrable defense at the start. The Irish held Pittsburgh to just 14 points in the first-half while building a 21-14 lead. The Panthers' output was only two better than the 12 notched by Miami in 1992 versus St. John's, the lowest ever for a first-half in Big East history.

All of this against a Pittsburgh team that entered 15-1 with 10 straight victories. Ben Howland's squad had been the lead story on back-to-back days in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, no small feat in a town that is Steeler-crazy.

And now maybe Notre Dame – which obviously also plays in a burg that prefers the gridiron to the hardwood – will also receive the attention it deserves when it returns home this coming Saturday versus Kentucky. There's just one piece of business in the way: A Monday visit to 15-2 and No. 12 Syracuse.

"We can be greedy now," said Brey, referring to his team's 2-0 start of the road trip. "We got a chance to call some attention to ourselves."

The Irish took the road suspect after a 74-72 home loss to Villanova last Sunday. They could return home tied in the loss column for first-place in the West Division. And it is because of solid team defense.

Celebrated Pittsburgh point guard Brandin Knight was held to four-of-13 shooting in 38 minutes by a tenacious diamond-and-one defense. Freshman Chris Thomas and Matt Carroll took turns checking Knight and took the Panthers out of their offensive game plan.

"It was a great move by Coach Brey," said Graves. "Knight is the head of the lion."

Overall, Notre Dame held Pittsburgh to just 20-for-58 shooting, turning the tables on the best scoring-defense team in the country.

Still, the Irish trailed 53-48 when Donatas Zavackas got free for a three-pointer over Ryan Humphrey with 2:43 to play.

"We had them," Brey smiled, "right where we wanted them."

Graves hit a three with 2:19 left. Pittsburgh misfired on its possession and guard Matt Carroll pulled down his team-high ninth rebound of the game. He was fouled by Zavackas and made both free-throws, tying the game.

"Matt was super," said Brey. "I was happy for him playing well back here (near his childhood home) after he practically got knocked out playing here last year."

Carroll finished with 15 points on six-for-nine shooting in addition to his nine rebounds. He was the most consistent Irish player on the floor all night.

"Coach told me I had to start hitting the boards hard and that's what I did," said Carroll. "It was a real barnburner."

Zavackas missed a three on Pittsburgh's next possession and Graves made the Panthers pay, calmly swishing his game-winner with 54 ticks left.

"David is David," said Humphrey, who was ineffective with just four-of-14 made field goals. "You know eventually he is going to make a big shot."

Graves had a message for those who may lose patience in him.

"The thing with Matty and myself that people don't grasp very well," Graves told IrishEyes, "is we could be out there 10-15 minutes and not produce anything and then in a stretch of three minutes we put up 10 points. That's why we have to be on the floor. You can miss those stretches and if you miss them you lose games."

Pittsburgh had two chances to tie, but Knight couldn't convert an open three with 40 seconds left. After Humphrey misfired in traffic with 15 seconds left, Pittsburgh could do no better than a rushed three by Jaron Brown (two points on one-for-eight shooting) that caromed hard off the glass.

The Panthers' final shot selection drew criticism from Thomas.

"I thought Brandin Knight should have had the ball in his hands," said Thomas. "The creator has to take the last shot. But we denied him the ball. You can't play much better defense than that."

"We were actually trying to foul there," admitted Brey. "But we couldn't get to anyone and Jaron Brown taking the shot is not a bad option for us."

Indeed. The 53 points the Irish allowed were the second lowest in the school's Big East history, bettered only by a 69-52 victory over Syracuse on January 2, 1997.

And Notre Dame feels it still has its best basketball ahead.

"We haven't played 40 minutes yet," said Humphrey. "When we do, we'll show people what we are made of."


THE NOTEBOOK: Brey took exception with an intentional foul call on Humphrey with 9:49 remaining, Pittsburgh up 36-34. Big East official Mike Kitts whistled Humphrey for throwing an elbow at Knight while running down the left lane on a fast break. The call wiped out a Humphrey dunk that would have tied the game, and led to two Knight free throw attempts and Pittsburgh possession. "I thought he was just running and striding, and sort of caught him (by accident)," said Brey. "That was a big call, you gotta be sure when you are going to make that call. I want to watch that one on tape."……Now this was a true college basketball atmosphere. A complete, shoulder-to-shoulder sell-out of 6,798 and the fans in full throat. It was also "white-out" night at Fitzgerald, with the large majority of spectators wearing white t-shirts, sweaters or sweatshirts. Notre Dame will not play in a better college basketball environment this season……Harold Swanagan had an effective seven-point, six-rebound, three assist line and is nearing full strength......Pittsburgh is now 20-4 its last 24 games……Graves last hit a game-winning shot for the Irish at Seton Hall on February 19, 2000……Athletic Director Kevin White was in attendance for the second straight game….The Irish fly commercial to Syracuse Sunday afternoon and will practice in the early evening at the Carrier Dome in anticipation of Monday's 7 p.m. ESPN clash.

(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes and can be reached at Top Stories