Redemption for Brey, Bye-Rish

PISCATAWAY , N.J. – The bye in the first-round of the Big East Tournament was taken care of two hours earlier – thanks, Villanova -- but it wasn't until 34 seconds remained at the sold-out Louis Brown Athletic Center before Mike Brey truly exhaled.

At that point, with No. 17 Notre Dame up 10 and Colin Falls on the line, Brey leaned back in his chair and slapped the backs of his top two assistants, Sean Kearney and Gene Cross. He then clapped twice and did a brief fist pump.

Hard-earned satisfaction.

Notre Dame, picked 11th in the Big East preseason coaches' poll, wrapped up an outstanding, 11-5 conference regular season with a 73-66 victory over Rutgers. The Irish, now 23-6 overall, will finish no lower than fourth in the final conference standings, and could rise to third if Seton Hall upsets Louisville on Sunday. It was a season that defied expectations and made basketball relevant again on a campus starved for a big-time winner.

"I remember back to Big East Media Day in New York ," Brey said, with a relaxed smile on his face. "They put us in this room at these little tables, and nobody wanted to talk to us. It was pretty telling what people thought of us.

"I went back and talked to the team about it," he continued. "Let me tell you, it's really easy to have everybody's attention when you are picked 11th in the league and maybe a team that can make the NIT."

When Brey and his team arrive back in the Big Apple next week, they will receive a much more respectful reception. Brey – five months removed from being on the Hot Seat of most college basketball journalists -- very well could receive the Big East Coach of the Year Award on Tuesday. Seniors Colin Falls and Russell Carter could earn All-Conference status. And when eight other teams begin play on Wednesday, Notre Dame can kick back and enjoy the spoils of its season. No need to lace them up again until Thursday – against either Syracuse, St. John's or Connecticut.

Call them the Fighting Bye-Rish. And, who knows, maybe the accolades won't stop here.

"I don't know if winning the Big East Tournament is as big as a (football) Bowl game to Notre Dame fans," said Carter. "But I can say to me it would be a dream come true. And I think we can do it."

Why not? Who would have thought that Notre Dame – after losing starting point guard Kyle McAlarney for the season in December – would match its record for most victories in a Big East season? Who thought that with two starting freshmen the Irish would win their final five conference games?

"I did, back on June 20," Carter said. "That was the first day that the freshmen were on campus and we had our first pick-up game. I knew we were special then, but we kept it to ourselves. We had to prove it."

And prove it, the Irish did. Right down to this final victory at Rutgers . Sure, the Scarlet Knights won one fewer game this winter (10-19) than it did in the football season (11-2), but this was Senior Day, its quirky building was full (8,011) for the first time this season, and it was a four-point game (57-53) with 8:41 to play.

"Nothing has come easy this year," said Brey, "it's been a five-month marathon." And even the last few strides were painful.

But, unlike the past three seasons, when March truly became madness for the Irish, this time there was positive reinforcement. Notre Dame's own seniors – Falls and Carter – combined for 39 points and appear to have the perfect blend of offensive explosiveness and leadership to help guide this team to a positive run in the Big East and the NCAA Tournaments.

"If you look at the guys that have won (Coach of the Year), they have had great captains, great leadership," Brey said. "I certainly have that with my three (Carter, Falls and junior Rob Kurz), and especially Colin Falls right now."

Falls completed his Notre Dame regular season career with 22 points in 38 minutes, making five-of-10 threes while providing a steadying influence on the floor. The 6-5 Park Ridge, Illinois product has played 31 minutes or more in the last 11 games and the Irish offensive and defensive rotations just don't seem the same when he's not out there. So much for being a one-trick pony.

"I am proud of the way I've played this year, the way I've adapted my game and become a leader," said Falls. "It took me a while to realize stats mean nothing, that the only statistic that matters is the number of victories, and we have a lot of them now. And more to come."

Carter's Notre Dame career ended with some symmetry. His last high school game at Paulsboro (N.J.) High was also at Rutgers, and he had a significant contingent of family and friends watch him score 17 points in 32 minutes.

A lot of those friendly faces also were on hand here January 31, 2004, when Notre Dame was beaten by Rutgers, 81-70. It was one of seven conference losses that cost the Irish an NCAA Tournament bid. A lot of scores were settled this season.

"We weren't great on the road," said Carter, referring to Notre Dame's final 3-5 regular season road mark, "but we did the job when we had to, and we're ready for the next step."

Notre Dame will head to New York healthy. Kurz, who scored 13 points and had six rebounds, twisted his previously-injured right ankle late in the second-half, but Brey reported it wasn't serious and he'll play Thursday. Freshman Luke Harangody – enduring the grind of a Big East season well – looked strong and fresh with 10 points and seven boards in 28 minutes. And freshman point guard Tory Jackson – despite having less than impeccable judgment at all times – did register nine assists in 37 minutes. The output allowed him to finish the season as the Big East leader in assists per contest, 6.0, just ahead of South Florida 's Chris Howard at 5.8.

"Remarkable," said Falls of Jackson 's improvement. "I remember after the St. John's game, we were 4-3 and scuffling a little bit. But then we beat Villanova and Syracuse back-to-back, and Tory seemed to really turn a corner. That was a big point of the season."

Now the games really begin to matter, and can Notre Dame mature a season that has been imminently satisfying to one that is truly memorable?

We'll find that out over the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, take a hint from Mike Brey. Lean back in your chair, pump your fist, and enjoy the moment.


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