Copyright by Global Electronic Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes™
January 30, 2002
ND Back in NCAA Hunt
By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com NewsService
(IE) – For those of you who only tune in to basketball when football season ends, this is what Mike Brey's team looked like in November and early December.
Ignore the fact that Notre Dame entered Wednesday night's game versus Pittsburgh ranked 13th (out of 14 teams) in Big East scoring. Forget that the Irish were 13th in field goal percentage, 12th in three-point shooting and 14th in rebounding margin.
Dismiss the notion that the team – built on a foundation of senior leadership – was crumbling under the weight of expectations.
Be a glass-half full kind of person, instead, and dwell on this. It was Notre Dame 89, 21st ranked Pittsburgh 76, and the Irish shot better than any team in Big East Conference in more than 10 years. In a true crossroads game, the Irish looked more than capable again of turning down the rosy path to the NCAA Tournament rather than toward the lower-class NIT neighborhood.
Playing before a near full-house at the Joyce Center, Notre Dame hardly looked like a team with a lowly 60 rating in the RPI. The Irish hit a phenomenal 21 shots in 31 tries in the first-half in opening a mind-numbing 49-21 advantage. The Irish had runs of 17-0 and 13-1 in building that margin against a Pittsburgh team that entered allowing only 62.2 points per contest in league play.
The 89 points was the third most Notre Dame has ever scored in Big East play. The Irish made 34-of-51 field goals for marksmanship of 66.7, the most accurate shooting in the Big East since 1990.
How different a basketball team can look when its shots are drawing nylon rather than iron.
"I wanted to see us get down the floor a little bit more," said Brey. "I didn't want it to be a half-court game, like it has been."
Ryan Humphrey hit seven-of-10 shots in the first-half and finished with 17 points, fouling out in the process. Freshman Chris Thomas dranined four-of-five in the opening session and dominated his elder rival Brandin Knight, for a half at least. He ended with 19 points and eight assists. David Graves, like he did so well the second-half of the 2001 season, came off the bench with nine first-half points and finished with 19, including six-of-six free throws.
"Chris got us moving early, we got some easy baskets, the bench got involved, and it snowballed," said Brey. "That's more like it."
Harold Swanagan (eight points, seven rebounds) was back setting his killer screens and it showed in the Notre Dame shooting percentages. The Irish entered making just 38-percent of their Big East shots. Brey was ecstatic with 13 assists in 21 first-half baskets, a sure sign of precise ball movement.
The Irish are now 14-6 overall, 4-3 in the Big East. Pittsburgh, the early-season darling coast-to-coast, drops to 18-4 overall, 6-3 in the Big East. Notre Dame has swept the Panthers and would hold a tiebreaker edge if the teams ended up tied in the West Division at season's end. Brey's team is just one game in the loss column behind first-place Syracuse with winnable games against Seton Hall and Rutgers on the immediate agenda.
Notre Dame opened this season with seven straight blow out victories and looked more athletic than any Irish unit since the halcyon days of Digger Phelps. But when the schedule turned tougher, Brey's group struggled, winning just six of 12 while looking progressively slower and more vulnerable on offense.
"We're excited tonight, but they'll be no parties thrown, just like we weren't jumping off buildings last week," Brey said. "We got to stay even keel and get over to Seton Hall.
"We tie ourselves up in knots sometimes because we want it so bad," Brey continued. "I want us playing loose and confident. We weathered some injuries and line-up changes well and now we're ready to go."
Sophomore Torrian Jones – starting in place of Graves for the second straight game – hit a three on Notre Dame's third possession and the Irish did little wrong the rest of the first-half. By the seven-minute mark, six different ND players had scored, the hosts had naile