Fat Suitcases and Bigger Dreams

Now the Irish will find out what the Big East Tournament is all about. Madison Square Garden will be rocking Friday night when the Irish meet perennial power Connecticut in a semifinal. The Irish are on top of their game, evidenced by a 20-point blow-out of host St. John's Thursday. IrishEyes Managing Editor Alan Tieuli reports courtside on an experienced team that is peaking at precisely the right time.

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

March 7, 2002

For First Time,
Irish Belong at Garden

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service

NEW YORK (IE) – These were the words of wisdom that Mike Brey used to inspire his team Monday afternoon before they departed campus for Manhattan and the Big East Conference Tournament.

"Bring extra underwear."

It turns out the Irish are going to need the garments, and if the players didn't pack enough into their Blue and Gold Adidas duffles, well Macy's is right across the street from Madison Square Garden and only eight blocks from the team hotel. Notre Dame – really for the first time in program history – has proven it belongs at this tournament. And it may just be around deep into the weekend.

The Domers were so fabulous Thursday night you almost forgot the past six years of futility in college's high rent district, Madison Square Garden. They used a 20-2 second half run to break open a close game and defeated St. John's, 83-63, before a sell-out crowd of 19,528. It was only Notre Dame's second victory in seven years at this March event and qualified Brey's team for the semifinals for the first time.

"Playing on national television on Thursday night, now getting to come in here for a semifinal game against UConn. Are you kidding me?" Brey told IrishEyes Thursday night. "We're getting more ready for prime time."

Notre Dame is 21-9 overall – its most regular season victories since 1987 – and now feels completely assured of an NCAA Tournament berth. And the Irish will be playing in the most attractive college game in the country on Friday, the 9:30 p.m. semifinal against 22-6 Connecticut.

"This is perfect," said senior forward David Graves, who played 26 minutes with a badly sprained left ankle. "The first year here for me was an embarrassment (79-69 loss to Seton Hall). Now we'll be playing against one of the best programs in conference history. It's getting to be our time."

Who's to say Notre Dame can't win the tournament in a starry semifinal group that features all four teams that drew first-round byes? The Irish beat both Pittsburgh and Miami, who meet in Friday's first semi. And Brey's bunch has an experience edge over Connecticut, which features five freshmen and sophomores among its first seven.

"Our seniors have carried us all year," said freshman point guard Chris Thomas, author of a 15-point, 11-assist, five-steal effort. "I suspect it will be the same thing against Connecticut."

The Huskies have imposing inside strength with co-Big East Player of the Year Caron Butler and shot-blocking artist Emeka Okafor, but Ryan Humphrey is competing and succeeding like an All-American. He hung up 21 points, 13 rebounds and six blocked shots on the Johnnies. He has eight consecutive double doubles and is averaging 20.1 points and 13.2 rebounds in that stretch.

"You would really have to look hard," said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, "to find a more complete player than Ryan Humphrey."

Junior Matt Carroll is also on top of his game. He had 20 points Thursday, including four-of-five three-pointers. Since missing the Miami game with a sprained ankle he is averaging 18.3 points over three contests and he looks fresh and smooth.

"The game off has turned out to help me," Carroll told IrishEyes Thursday night. "I have some extra lift I didn't have last year at this time. It seems like we all do."

That comes with winning. Last year's Notre Dame left MSG on a Thursday night with a three-game losing streak. This squad has won four of its last five and may be looking at a 4, 5 or 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

St. John's bested Notre Dame, 84-81, in this same building on February 27, but Brey had Mike Jarvis' number this time. He had his team in an extended 2-3 zone that stifled the Red Storm's inside game and provided few good perimeter looks to Marcus Hatten (nine-for-24). The Irish were outstanding early (scoring the first seven points) and then had the emotional fortitude to fend off an inevitable second-half run.

"Right now we are firing on all cylinders," said Brey. "It started right after the Syracuse loss. Even though we have not won every game, we have played well and we've understood who we are. We're having fun playing still. A lot of teams get tired this time of year. We're having fun playing."

The first-half was merely the best 20 minutes of basketball the Irish have played on the road this season, and that's saying something considering the travel proficiencies of this group (5-3 in Big East play, 11-5 overall). The Domers led 42-28 – their biggest advantage at intermission in Big East road play – and earned it by shooting a sizzling 63-percent (17-for-27). Attack, attack, attack in the halfcourt.

"I see 25 assists again (out of 29 field goals)," said Brey. "That's an amazing stat."

All eight Notre Dame players deployed by Brey scored in the half with Humphrey leading the way with 16 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. The feature basket, though, was a fast-break one-hand slam by Jones in which he elevated elbows to the rim. Jones had six points and three assists in 16 first-half minutes, subbing wonderfully for the foul-plagued Graves.

St. John's tried to capture lightning in a bottle twice in eight days when it inserted 7-3, 380-pound Curtis Johnson with 14:52 remaining, ND leading 50-36. The experiment this time lasted only 90 seconds as Johnson missed a pair of point-blank put-backs.

Humphrey made it a point to sidle up to Johnson as he entered and told him that there would be no sequel to the big guy's show-stopping performance.

"I'm a person who likes to talk. I'll talk to a stop sign," Humphrey smiled. "He was the person that got the fans into it last time. I was like, ‘It ain't going to happen again.' I don't care what you do."

But the Johnnies did have a plus-four with Cujo in the game, trimming their disadvantage to 53-43. Hatten was heating up, the Garden had a bit more life, and it was time for the Irish to buckle down.

When the Red Storm scored the next five points – including a wing three by Hatten with a lifetime, 10:40, remaining – it was nearing white-knuckle time for some of the Subway Alumni in the darkened Garden seats. But Brey stayed true to the 2-3 zone and St. John's offense meter quickly pointed to "E." The Men of Queens had five consecutive empty trips while Thomas, Carroll and Graves – the latter a contested wing three – and the advantage was back to a comfortable 60-48 with 7:17 remaining.

Eric King scored inside for the Red Storm and that was the last basket it would score that would matter. Over the next 2:15, the Irish were half-court clinicians, with Thomas hitting a wing three, Humphrey depositing a turnaround jumper, and Carroll draining a pair of soft threes. All of this carnage made it 71-50 by the final TV timeout and effectively emptied the building well before last call.

"The Notre Dame program is coming back," said senior Harold Swanagan who had eight points and nine rebounds in 31 minutes. "I think it's just a terrific accomplishment to be playing Connecticut on Friday night at this arena. And, you know what? We've been taking it to people all year long and we're going to take it right to them too."

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THE NOTEBOOK: On Notre Dame's very first possession Thomas set the tone for the night, hitting Carroll with a crisp behind-the-back pass for a penetration move. "I thought it was the right pass," Thomas smiled. "I hope my coach did too." No worries there. Brey gives Thomas lots of latitude….Graves got hardly any sleep Wednesday night as he iced his ankle for several hours. "I busted it up pretty good in practice and I just knew I would not be effective offensively," said Graves. "But I had to give it a go, and thankfully my teammates picked me up."….After Jones played 16 minutes in the first-half, the Notre Dame bench played a grand total of one minute following intermission….Jarvis questioned the intensity of his team in his post-game comments. "It's very disappointing," he said. "I don't think we played with the kind of energy you need and I don't know why."…..Hatten finished with a game-high 25 points but needed 24 shots to get them. No other Johnnie had more than nine points….In case you're wondering, the wish list for most of the Irish traveling party for NCAA placement goes like this: Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington. The Windy City becomes a probability if the Irish can win this whole thing and sneak up to a four-seed…..The loss was St. John's second most lopsided in 20 years of conference tournament play at MSG … Humphrey's six blocked shots matched his season high…Try not to be too critical of Boston College's Troy Bell. Pittsburgh's Brandin Knight vastly outplayed the junior Thursday afternoon in Pittsburgh's too-easy 76-62 victory over the Eagles. But BC Sports Information Director Mike Enright, a former Domer and loyal IrishEyes reader, says watch out for Bell in 2003. "He had arthroscopic surgery on Halloween and played 38, 39, 40 minutes every game," Enright said. "He's just worn out." With a little more interior help – the Eagles really missed the underrated Jonathan Beerbohm this season – Bell could return to his 2001 Player of the Year form next season…. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh probably should be a unanimous Preseason pick for West Division favorites next year. Ben Howland has his team playing scary good, lockdown defense and the Panthers return everyone except role player Chad Johnson. And they move into a new building…. It felt like Pearl Washington and Chris Mullin were in the house Thursday for the evening session. The Garden, for the first time in the tournament, was legitimately packed.

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


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