"We want to be difference makers," said freshman point guard Tory Jackson after skillfully guiding the Irish to an 89-83 victory over Syracuse in the quarterfinal round of the Big East Tournament. "I came here to help make this program special, to play a part with great coaches and win important games. This was one of them."
Indeed, this was a contest on a special stage. Syracuse, the two-time defending Big East Tournament champion, entered having won its last eight post-season games at Madison Square Garden. Notre Dame, meanwhile, had been a patsy in this setting, winning a measly three games in 11 years.
"We've always been bullied here," said Colin Falls. "We blinked when we were pushed."
That wasn't going to happen on this day. Behind a team-high 24 points from Russell Carter, 23 more from Falls, and a bruising, 20-point, 11-rebound effort from freshman Luke Harangody, the Irish looked like smarter, tougher and more efficient than their more decorated foe.
Syracuse has won five Big East Tournament titles, but it will be back on its Central New York campus Friday evening when the Irish take on top-seeded Georgetown in the semifinals. And, for those fans who relish in opponent anguish, note that Orange coach Jim Boeheim was condescending and whiny in his post-game press conference, cutting off reporters and giving one sentence answers.
Notre Dame creating a reaction like that from a charter Big East member? Now that's a good day!
The next step in the elite application process is winning a semifinal game on Friday night at the Garden. Notre Dame has only been in that setting once, losing a eight-point game (it wasn't really that close) to Connecticut in 2003. Now it gets top-seeded Georgetown. Both teams have glittery 24-6 records, and the Irish insist their 18-point loss to the Hoyas on January 6 will serve as motivation, not intimidation.
"We're not the same team now," said Harangody. "Not even close. Georgetown will see that too."
Syracuse beat Georgetown by 14 in the Carrier Dome scantly two weeks ago, so nobody should be dismissing Notre Dame's chances. And Carter felt he spotted a good omen in the lower stands at Madison Square Garden earlier in the afternoon.
"My parents were sitting in front of John Thompson and Patrick Ewing," the senior smiled, referring to the Hall of Fame Hoya coach and the conference's all-time signature player. "I'm just looking at living greats, and they are there with my parents."
Now Carter will have the opportunity to create his own niche in the Garden. It is something he relishes.
"This is the mecca of basketball," Carter said, just steps away from the Knicks locker-room. "This is where Michael (Jordan) scored 55, Reggie Miller had eight points in six seconds. It's time for us to make our mark in the Big East."
Notre Dame has already proven one thing this year – it is better than Syracuse and deserves a significantly higher seeding in the NCAA Tournament than the Orange. Not only did the Irish score the most points of any Carrier Dome opponent ever on January 30, (a 103-91 victory) but now it has flummoxed Boeheim teams with two difference game plans. In January, Notre Dame tore apart a man defense. On this afternoon, the vaunted 2-3 zone was no defense at all.
Thank Tory Jackson for the latter. Turning in a complete game effort, he scored nine points, had eight assists, five rebounds, four steals and only turned the ball over twice. Harangody should take Jackson out for the biggest pastrami sandwich the West Side offers, because it was his skillful dribble penetration and drop passes that led to the majority of Harangody's seven baskets.
"I had to make the right read against the zone, because they have unreal long arms," said Jackson. "But when they kept their hands high, I would make a bounce pass. When they kept their hands low, I would make chest passes. I started playing mind games with them."
Jackson knew the Orange was ripe for the picking even when Notre Dame trailed 26-16 in the first-half.
"We were able to run our offense, and I knew we were just going to keep knocking," Jackson said. "In a timeout, we all just looked in each other's eyes and knew we had them, no matter what the score was."
Notre Dame trimmed that early 10-point deficit to two at the half, and a Carter hoop with 16:43 gave the Irish a 41-39 lead. They never trailed again.
Syracuse helped by being awful at the foul-line, 16-for-29. And All-Big East selection Demetris Nichols (five-for-14 from the field) was very average and sharpshooter Andy Rautins (one-for-six) was slowed by a leg injury. But Notre Dame was simply more fun to watch on this day.
Fun, particularly if you like three-point shooting. The Irish hoisted 34 of them, more than half of their total shot output.
"Absolutely in the game plan," laughed head coach Mike Brey, who is having a helluva week in Gotham , adding this victory to the Coach of the Year bauble he picked up on Tuesday. "I said, ‘Just let it fly.' I don't want our guys worried or looking at the bench when they shoot it."
No worries there. All of Falls' shot – 17 of them – were threes, tying a tournament record set by Boston College's Dana Barros. Two of the treys were particularly big – the first quickly answered a Nichols three to keep the Irish in front, 56-51. The second, with 2:11 left, was a dagger, making it 79-70.
The score was only as close as it was because Syracuse 's Paul Harris put up a ridiculous stat line – 24 points and 15 rebounds in 22 possessed minutes. Maybe that is why Boeheim was all full of vinegar in his presser – he was ticked that he didn't have Harris on the floor more.
Too late now. After owning this floor for two years, Syracuse had to acknowledge it was beaten soundly.
But let's never forget, this is Notre Dame. Junior forward Rob Kurz, after scoring eight points and securing eight rebounds in 28 minutes, will celebrate tonight by taking a Religion exam in his East Side hotel room.
"It is on ancient religions, like Hinduism, Buddhism," said Kurz.
And Notre Dame appears to be on its way to making its Big East Tournament struggles ancient history.