'Super' Win for Surging Irish

What was the difference between winning and losing? Oh, only first and sixth place. Yes, that's how tight the teams are bunched in the West Division of the Big East Conference. But now, thanks to a game-winning basket by Chris Thomas in a 63-61 victory over Seton Hall, Notre Dame controls its own destiny. What a sweet way to kick off Super Bowl Sunday in Notre Dame Nation. Alan Tieuli reports.

Copyright by Global Electronic Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes™

February 3, 2002

Irish Take A Stand;
 First-Place in Sight

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com NewsService

(IE) – You wouldn’t have known this was such an important game.  After all it was being played at noon on Super Bowl Sunday in a drafty, half-empty building that shares a parking lot with a massive NFL Stadium.

But, in the balanced Big East Conference, Notre Dame’s road contest with Seton Hall at the Meadowlands essentially meant five spots in the standings.    Win and the Irish would be tied (in the loss column) for first in the West Division.  Fail to succeed and Mike Brey’s team would find itself in sole possession of sixth-place.

There’s such a fine line between contending status and mediocrity.  And on this afternoon, there was an even a slimmer difference between victory and defeat.

Charles Manga’s three-point attempt at the buzzer rimmed out and Notre Dame defeated Seton Hall, 63-61.   The Irish left the floor exhilarated with the victory and now realize the are well positioned for a run at the top of the Big East standings and an NCAA Tournament berth.

Chris Thomas (10 points) scored the winning points on a breakaway lay-up with 5.8 seconds left.  The easy basket was set up when Seton Hall did not rotate back on defense after Andre Barrett missed on a penetration move with 10 seconds left, the game tied.

“When the game was on the line, we did not make smart decisions,” said Seton Hall coach Louis Orr.

Notre Dame is now 15-6 overall, 5-3 in the West Division, the same number of losses as Pittsburgh and Syracuse.  And the Irish have a tie-breaker edge over the Panthers.  The next six games for the Irish are within the division, so Brey’s team controls its own destiny.  That’s a nice feeling.

Seton Hall fell into the dreaded sixth-place hole at 4-5, 11-10 overall.  The Pirates, truth be told, are not that good and, as the last possessions illustrated, not particularly bright either.

Brey knew he stole one immediately after and praised his team’s defense and savvy.

“It was great awareness there not to foul (on Barrett’s drive),” said Brey. “And then a veteran presence like Ryan Humphrey to get the rebound and throw it ahead to get a lay-up.  Those are winning plays.”

David Graves led the Irish off the bench with 20 points, hitting three-of-seven three-pointers.  Humphrey had 11 points, 10 rebounds and – stop the presses! – made three-of-three free throws, including a huge pair with 1:31 left that gave the Irish the lead.

Matt Carroll was the fourth Irish player in double figure, finishing with 10.

“Graves was fabulous,” said Brey. “He is playing with a toughness and maturity about him.  We needed it too, because Seton Hall, after losing to us eight days ago and then beating St. John’s, had some bounce to them.”

The Irish have won three in a row for the first time since November and host Rutgers on Wednesday night at the Joyce Center.  Brey describes the Scarlet Knights as “the hottest team in the conference” after upset victories over Connecticut and Syracuse.

“We’re right in this thing,” said Brey. “This West Division is going to be wild down the stretch and we’re going to be a part of it.”

Notre Dame swept Seton Hall this year in large part because of the defense it played on Barrett.  The sophomore had only nine points – eight below his season average – in this game and also did not crack double figures in South Bend.  Darius Lane (17 points) led the Pirates in scoring on this day, but missed two key throws in the final minutes and also showed poor shot selection.

“I thought Torrian Jones did a terrific job on defense, playing like a veteran,” said Brey. “To beat Seton Hall you have to control their perimeter.  We did that.”

John Allen hit a leaner with 1:12 left to forge the ninth tie of the game, 61-61, and both teams had empty possessions before the final Barrett/Thomas exchange.  The game had nine ties and 11 lead changes.

Somehow, Notre Dame overcame a dreadful start in which it missed its first nine shots and fell into a 15-2 hole.  The Irish did not score a field goal until a Harold Swanagan (six points and nine rebounds before fouling out) put back at the 11:27 mark. 

But, typical of a Brey-coached team, the Irish turned things around by intensifying the defensive effort.  Seton Hall took early control by hitting a trio of threes, but Notre Dame extended its defense and Brey inserted beefy Tom Timmermans to control matters inside against the most timid interior team in the conference.

Brey’s strategy worked.  The Irish had runs of 18-2 and 13-2 – with seven different players scoring, none in double figures – to take a 33-26 lead at intermission.  The Irish had only three-point field goal in the runs, as it became a transition lay-up festival off Pirates turnovers and missed shots.  Seton Hall only scored 11 points the final13 minutes of the half, six on a pair of inexplicable, unguarded three-pointers by Greg Morton, who had one three-point attempt all last season. 

“We have some quality depth on the front line now,” said Brey. “Jordan Cornette and Tom Timmermans were fabulous.”

The last sentence is a bit of Brey hyperbole.  But excuse the head coach right now.  His team is a contender again.

-0-

THE NOTEBOOK: Shame on Adidas.  Notre Dame and Seton Hall – among many other Adidas schools across the country – have exactly the same uniforms.  Same design of shorts and same design of jersey, right down to the font of the letters for the player’s name to the placement of the school’s name and logo to the U.S. flag.  So much for supplying uniforms meant to express a school’s identity.  But, then again, it’s not about the schools.  It’s about Adidas recouping the fees it pays these schools with licensed product sales. Who says commercialism doesn’t exist at Notre Dame?..….The Irish entered with an RPI of 44, which is key since usually the minimum barometer for at-large bids is an RPI of 45……Notre Dame is now (3-4 or 2-5) at the Meadowlands.  This reporter covered the first Irish visit there, on Feb. 18, 1982 when an awful Irish team lost a dreadful 71-58 decision to Bill Raftery and Seton Hall.  That was the year the NCAA expanded its Tournament field to 64, and the NIT expanded to 32.  After the game, Digger Phelps cracked “Ninety-six teams get to play in a tournament, and we couldn’t beat any of them.”  His team finished 10-17…..Graves and Orr accidentally bumped into each other leaving the floor at halftime and the two briefly exchanged what appeared to be nasty words.  But the classy Orr sought Graves out after and told him no hard feelings…..Notre Dame outrebounded Seton Hall, 42-38…..The Irish guaranteed themselves a better than .500 regular season record.  This will be the first time Notre Dame has had three straight winning seasons since 1987-88, 1988-89 and 1989-90 (20-9, 21-9, 16-13 under Phelps).

(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes and can be reached at aatandsonspr@aol.com)


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