Seniors Save The Day

It was all slipping away -- a 10-win Big East season, 20 wins overall, an at-large NCAA bid. Down seven with time running out, a hero was needed. Three stepped forward. All were seniors. The script was perfect, the ending was better. Notre Dame 76, Providence 68 and the Joyce Center rocked. Alan Tieuli reports courtside on the finale of a very satisfying regular season.

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

March 2, 2002

Seniors Respond
To Coach's Challenge

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service

NOTRE DAME, IN (IE) – Down seven with 7:09 to play, Mike Brey admitted, "You kind of saw your life flashing before your eyes."

But, in his heart, Brey knew his seniors were going to find a way to pull out this most important and emotional home game. He knew, because the coach is genuine when he says, "Going back to my Duke and Delaware days, I’ve never had seniors who have shown such leadership."

And so it was, a seven-point Providence lead evaporated Saturday in the face of a game-closing 19-4 run by Notre Dame, with seniors Ryan Humphrey, David Graves and Harold Swanagan scoring 14 of the points. Life isn’t convenient or accommodating in many cases, but on this raw day on campus, the ending was perfectly scripted.

Notre Dame’s 76-68 victory lifted the Irish to 20-9 overall, the first time the program has won 20 three straight years in 13 seasons. It also provided Brey’s club with double-digit victories two years consecutively in Big East play. If Syracuse loses to Boston College on Sunday, the Irish will be the only team in the conference to accomplish that feat.

"Double-digit wins in your league says something about your program," said Brey. "It was important for us to be good again this year. And we are good."

Notre Dame clinched at least the third spot in the West Division of the Big East and would climb into second with a Syracuse loss. All eyes should be on the Carrier Dome Sunday at noon, because if the home team falls, the Irish would get a first-round tournament bye and would play in the quarterfinals 9 p.m. Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

"We are sort of resigned to playing on Wednesday," said Brey. "But we’ll get together (Sunday) at 5 when all the results are in, and talk about our opponent and our travel."

Before then, the Irish can savor a victory that was flawed, but still so memorable. It began, 10 minutes before tip-off, with Graves sobbing during the Senior Day ceremonies. It included Chris Thomas setting the school record for assists in a single season (it now stands at 217). And it concluded with the seniors saving the day on the floor.

Providence – blessed with an outstanding coach in Tim Welsh but cursed by a debilitating run of injuries – came in with a 15-14 overall record and six freshmen or sophomores in its eight-player rotation. The Friars had lost convincingly on the road to Virginia Tech and were all that stood between West Virginia and a winless conference season. Even though they have a gifted senior guard in John Linehan, the all-time NCAA leader in career steals, the visitors had no right leading 64-57 with 7:09 remaining.

But that was indeed the score after Finnish freshman Tuuka Kotti (nine points) sank a 15-footer. You could feel the desperation in the sold-out Joyce Center.

But Graves, off a nice feed from Humphrey, hit a driving lay-up for an and-one. He swiped the ball at mid-court from Chris Anrin and was fouled driving for a lay-up. He made both. And after the team’s exchanged failed possessions, Thomas hit a soft leaner in the lane. It took two minutes to tie the game and will be Graves’ lasting memory of his final home game.

"It was at the point where we had to stop them five possessions in a row to win the game," he said. "It’s at this time of year where you have to step up and make big plays."

"When Dave gets down in a stance and makes his mind up (to play defense), he’s fabulous," said Brey. "He dug in there at the seven minute mark."

Notre Dame took its first lead of the second half with 4:17 to play when Humphrey soared over the rim for a tap-in. The advantage was solidified on the next possession when junior Matt Carroll (16 points in 31 minutes) hit a tough baseline three-pointer.

When Swanagan – playing in front of his parents on this special day – made a confident move to the hoop for a soft jumper with 1:50 to play, the lead was seven and Providence was done. The team’s fourth senior, former walk-on Charles Thomas, was able to end his career on the court as the crowd rained down thunderous post-game applause on a team that deserves every bit of praise you can muster.

"I had these guys out to my house the day (Troy) Murph(y) decided to go," said Brey. "I said, ‘I’m really happy for you guys, you have more of a spotlight. You get to do more now. Guess what? Now you got to do it’.

"Now they have done it," said Brey. "And I’m really proud of that."

Graves finished his regular season career with a solid 14 points, six assists and three steals. Swanagan had six points in 20 foul-plagued minutes, but saved his best for last. Thomas wasn’t nearly at his best at the point – few are against Linehan – but he did manage 13 points and a season-low three assists. He only turned the ball over three times and Linehan, who was averaging 4.5 swipes a game, only managed two.

The eye-popping statistics were left for Humphrey. How is this for an impact player? He led his team in five categories – 21 points, 13 rebounds, two blocks, three steals and seven assists.

When Thomas was told about Humphrey’s assist mark, he rolled his eyes.

"He already told me about that in the locker-room," said Thomas.

"He told me too," Carroll quickly chimed in.

"It must be misprint," Thomas added. The room broke up in laughter. Which is exactly the way Humphrey wanted it.

"It’s not by accident that we won the last two years when (Humphrey’s) been eligible," said Brey. "The fearlessness he brings helps us. The smile loosens us up. He’s the most vocal leader in that locker-room when I leave."

And now Humphrey is a legitimate All-Big East first-teammer. It’s a shame the coach’s votes have already been tabulated, because this game would have put him over the top.

"I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said I didn’t think about it," said Humphrey. "But the team comes first, and as long as Notre Dame wins, I’m happy."

"He’s had a first-team All-League year, I don’t think it’s close," said Brey.

Stage one is complete and a 20-9 overall record, 10-6 in the conference is quite acceptable thank you. And there’s more to come, according to Brey.

"I want us to be thought of as a big-time program," the head coach, 40-19 at Notre Dame, said. "We got two stages left where we can really put an exclamation point on that whole scene."


THE NOTEBOOK: It was eerie in the post-game interview setting, but you have to remember this is Indiana. It was Notre Dame’s final home game, the NCAA Tournament possibly at stake, and there was not a local television camera to be found. Every station was in Indianapolis at the girls’ high school tournament final featuring local outfit Riley High School…Jordan Cornette had an outstanding effort off the bench with six points in 16 minutes, including a perimeter three. His quickness on defense also helped turn the game around. "I thought Torrian (Jones) and Jordan, getting them in there together, gave us a line-up that was a little quicker. We picked up full-court one time and that got us attacking," said Brey…It’s worth reminding, no team in Big East Conference history has ever won 20 games in the regular and not made an NCAA Tournament field that featured at least 64 teams…Notre Dame trailed at the half, 41-38. It was the team’s first halftime deficit since January 26 versus Seton Hall…The Irish won on network television (the game was a half-country broadcast on CBS) for the first time this season. Including ESPN, ESPN2, FoxSportsNet, ABC and CBS, the Irish were 0-6 this year and 1-11 their last 12 with the bright lights on…Providence needs to win its first-round Big East Tournament game to guarantee a .500 season and potentially earn an NIT berth. If Villanova and Syracuse both win Sunday, the Friars would have a quick re-match with the Irish on 2 p.m. Wednesday. "It’s probably not bad playing them right away," said Brey. "We got a pretty good feel for them."….Providence coach Welsh feels differently. "Their record is what it is because they’re good," said Welsh. "I don’t believe in match-ups. We lost the game today, so playing the game again I’m certainly not confident we can beat them."…This reporter’s insights on NCAA bid from the Big East. IN: Connecticut, Miami, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame. BUBBLE: St. John’s, Syracuse, Georgetown. OUT: Boston College, Rutgers….Check back with IrishEyes Sunday evening for our predictions on All-Big East, Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year. We’ll be in New York for the Awards Ceremony on Tuesday and will provide courtside coverage from Madison Square Garden of the conference tournament.

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