Irish Back on Tourney Track

No worries, there were no Donta Wade play-alikes in West Virginia uniforms. Notre Dame overcame a two-game losing streak and a woebegone Big East foe to get back in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament berth. Chris Thomas was back on his game, but there may be some trouble with Matt Carroll's health. Alan Tieuli has the report.

Copyright by Global Electronic Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes™

February 20, 2002

No Wade Reprise:
 Irish Back in Form

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com NewsService

(IE) – Did anybody else think about Donta Wade on Wednesday?

It was Wade – a non-descript junior college transfer – who ruined Notre Dame’s 1999-2000.  He came into the Joyce Center with a last place Providence team on February 23 that season and shot lights out in a 10-point Friar victory.  It was the defeat that ultimately kept the Irish out of the NCAA Tournament under Matt Doherty.

History didn’t repeat itself.  Chris Thomas wouldn’t let it.

West Virginia – officially the worst team in the Big East with one victory and a double-digit loss to Virginia Tech – didn’t have the sharpshooters or overall talent to hang with Notre Dame.  Taking their cue from Thomas, the Irish looked fresh and confident in rolling to an 89-76 victory over the Mountaineers.

The wunderkind point guard had another special game -- 26 points and 12 assists as the Irish snapped a two-game losing streak.  Thomas’ effort was particularly uplifting since many fans thought the slightly-built freshman had emptied his tank in a 60-minute performance at Georgetown on February 9.  The Irish had not won since.

“I look at the stat sheet and I see 28 assists,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. “That tells me we are playing very unselfishly and aggressively.”

All is not well, however, in Notre Dame Nation.  Starting guard Matt Carroll sprained his ankle 14 minutes into the first-half and never returned.  He is questionable for the Irish’s Saturday night contest at Miami.

“He strained the foot that he injured (falling out of bounds after a made jumper) in the Rutgers game,” said Brey. “Hopefully he’ll be ready (Saturday).”

Entering with an RPI of 35, Notre Dame now has an impressive overall record of 18-8 with three regular season games remaining.  Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, no eligible Big East team with 20 or more victories has failed to earn an at-large berth.  It appears simple then.  To dance, win two of the remaining three on the schedule (at Miami, at St. John’s, Providence) or take one and also win a game in the Big East Tournament.

“I talk to them about the NCAA Tournament prospects, so they hear about it from me,” said Brey. “I give them a weekly update on where we stand.  Then we focus on the task at hand.  This was an important game if we wanted to go.”

The Irish completed West Division play with an 8-4 record versus divisional rivals, including sweeps over Pittsburgh, Seton Hall and West Virginia.  Notre Dame is 17-7 against the West the past two seasons, a very impressive mark.

"We just keep rising up the ladder in terms of what this basketball program is achieving,” said Brey. “We’ve won 18 league games overall the last two years.  That’s impressive.”

West Virginia fell to 8-17 overall, 1-12 in the Big East.  The Mountaineers have lost a head coach, Gale Catlett, and 15 of their last 16.  With three games remaining, they are on a course to lose 20 games, which is almost unheard of when it comes to Big East teams.  It’s only happened to four schools in conference history – Boston College twice (1998-99, 1989-90), Miami twice (1993-94, 1991-92), Providence (1984-85) and Seton Hall (1982-83).

Notre Dame led 49-39 at the half as Thomas had 17 points and six assists, directly accounting for more than half of the offense.  The Irish never trailed after 7-6.  The game was not nearly as threatening as the Jan. 9 visit to Morgantown when the Irish fell behind by as many as 18 in the first-half.

“They had us beat in Morgantown,” remembered Brey. “So we took this game quite seriously.  Jonathan Hargett is an incredible talent.”

But the freshman point guard is also 0-2 against Notre Dame and the pre-season Big East Rookie of the Year will not be in New York on March 5 when the award is presented…almost certainly to Thomas.   Hargett had 15 points (five-for-14 shooting) on this night.

David Graves, back in the starting line-up for his penultimate home game, had 20 points on nine-for-15 shooting.  The pride of Lexington had nine in the first eight minutes of the second-half as the Irish turned the contest in a 65-47 rout. 

“It’s time for the seniors to be men,” said Brey. “That’s why David was back in the starting line-up.  He helped set the tone in practice the last two days.”

Ryan Humphrey (19 points, 13 rebounds) controlled things inside as he makes a late, darkhorse run at Big East Player of the Year and first-team All-Star.  There is no disputing that Humphrey’s effort – game in, game out – has been uncannily consistent.

“Ryan is an absolute warrior,” said Brey. “He’s definitely a Player of the Year candidate.  I’m just so proud of the year he’s having.  You talk about senior leadership, it’s this guy.”

And Brey is quick to praise a unit that many were bailing on after Sunday’s disappointing loss to Syracuse.

“I told our guys on practice Monday, we’re playing well,” Brey said. “I like the way we are playing faster, I like the way we are playing unselfish.  I like our chemistry right now.”

-0-

THE NOTEBOOK: There has been much talk about Brey’s record in nationally televised games and his record at Notre Dame against ranked teams.  But how about focusing on a positive statistic?  Try this one.   Five teams from the Big East Conference made the NCAA’s last year – ND, Syracuse, Georgetown, Boston College and Providence.  Barring something outrageous, only the Irish and Orange should be selected this year from that group.   Consistency.  Isn’t that why Brey was hired?…..Here’s another positive note.  The Irish have now won exactly 60 games the last three seasons.  That hasn’t happened since the 186-87, 1987-88 and 1988-89 teams combined to win 65.  That was also the last time ND won 20 three consecutive seasons…….Graves entered the contest 87 points behind Kelly Tripucka and seventh place on the all-time Irish scoring list.  With 20 Wednesday and, barring injury, a minimum of five games remaining, Graves needs to average 13.4 per to pass number 44, one of this reporter’s favorites…..Speaking of Top 10 ND scorers, Troy Murphy had a terrible homecoming to the Meadowlands Tuesday.  He went scoreless in 15 minutes and was part of a porous Golden State defense that surrendered 75 points to New Jersey in the first-half.  The Warriors are so bad the team’s city newspaper, The Oakland Tribune, no longer travels with the squad full-time…….Making plans for the Big East Tournament?  There’s an easy way to figure when ND will be playing.  If the Irish finish in an odd numbered position (first, third, fifth) they would open in an afternoon session (Thursday at 7 p.m. if first, Wednesday at noon if fifth, at two if third).  If they finish in an even spot (second, fourth, sixth) they would open in a night session (Thursday at 9 p.m. if first, Wednesday at 7 if fourth, at 9 if sixth)……Jordan Cornette hit his first career three-pointer in the first-half.  It was his fourth attempt.  Two possessions later, he stroked a 18-footer.  He’s in Brey’s plans to be a perimeter presence, particularly with the departure next season of Graves and the entrance of physical Ricky Cornett, Torin Francis and senior Dan Miller.   Cornette finished with a very impressive line – eight points and nine rebounds in 24 minutes…..Tom Timmermans fills the Big East pre-requisite.  Big Body, Eats Fouls.  He had five personal fouls in 12 minutes…..All five West Virginia starters reached double figures.  Unfortunately for Mountaineer fans, those starters were named (Drew) Schifino and (Josh) Yeager, not (Tim) Lyles and (Lionel) Armstead.

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


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