"Winning the Big East Tournament, yeah, that would be big," said freshman point guard Tory Jackson. "That would be like the football team winning a Bowl game. It would be a statement. It would mean so much in our locker-room."
And Jackson did everything in his power to make it happen, but fourth-seeded Notre Dame dropped a heartbreaking 84-82 decision to top-seeded Georgetown tonight, denying the Irish the opportunity to play in its first ever Big East Tournament final.
On March 19, 1978, Digger Phelps' Irish defeated DePaul to win its regional and advance to the Final Four. The Irish cut down the nets that afternoon at Phog Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence , Kansas and the future looked limitless for young Digger and his rapidly-improving program.
Nearly 30 years have passed, and the Irish are still looking for another truly meaningful victory. The Irish have not advanced past the Sweet 16 in the NCAA's since and their only "honor" was a Big East West Division title in 2000-01, Mike Brey's first year as head coach.
Brey had rings commissioned for that group, and they wore them proudly the next year. But Notre Dame has pretty much remained the wicked stepchild of the Big East, doing just enough to be more than respectful, but not enough to be considered elite.
So, yeah, this one hurts. If Russell Carter (21 points, eight boards) drains his last-second three, the Irish not only would have had a signature victory, but probably enough juice to win the final. If you were Jamie Dixon or Rick Pitino, would you have wanted to game-plan on no rest to face an Irish team that kills you on the perimeter, in the paint, AND in dribble penetration?
Earlier in the bowels of Madison Square Garden , Carter was musing about what a Big East Tournament title would have meant.
"(It means) maybe Notre Dame could be known as something other than Notre Dame football," he said. "At the (Big East) banquet (Tuesday night), we saw a video with all the championship games. We saw Georgetown , Syracuse , UConn, Pittsburgh . But no Notre Dame. That got us motivated."
And the Irish played with that motivation right to the final buzzer. The Irish plainly outworked the talented Hoyas, beating the D.C. powerhouse to most loose balls. The Irish outrebounded Georgetown , 31-27, with 17 of the boards coming from Jackson and Carter. Pure hustle.
Maybe the difference was simply that the Irish are not use to winning games under the brightest of lights. But that is going to change, particularly if uber-freshmen Jackson (20 points, five assists) and Luke Harangody (11 points) have anything to say about it. Talk about kids growing up fast; maybe this duo can continue this magic into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
"I know it sounds funny," said forward Rob Kurz, who contributed nine points and seven boards. "But in pre-season, we all just knew that this was a team with a different attitude, a team that would run through walls to win a gamer, no matter who the opponent was or the situation. The freshmen had a lot to do with that."
Notre Dame led by 14 early (37-23), but the 25-6 Hoyas climbed back to within 46-44 at the half. And when Georgetown fought and scratched to a 76-69 lead with 4:55 to play, it looked like the Irish had run out of gas.
But Brey – not the Big East Coach of the Year by charity – called timeout and put the game in the capable hands of his freshman point guard. The 13th child of James and Sarah Jackson was a revelation for the next 95 seconds, scoring seven consecutive points on three dribble-drives. That tied it, and Notre Dame actually took a 78-76 lead on two Kurz free throws with 2:54 remaining.
Ultimately, Big East Player of the Year Jeff Green (30 points and 12 rebounds in a lottery pick performance) hit a tough leaner with 14 seconds left to give Georgetown an 84-82 lead. He was also fouled, but missed the free throw, and Carter's great, controlled look just before the buzzer was slightly left of center.
There is a school of thought that the Big East Tournament is a meaningless exercise. It is simply a vehicle for ESPN to sell time to advertisers; for Madison Square Garden to get some good gate receipts; for the conference to get some coin from corporate partners; that a team that wins three games in three days (or four games in four days, like Syracuse '06) will be too physically and emotionally drained to compete well in the NCAA Tournament.
That theory holds no water in the Notre Dame traveling party.
"I'm a kid from Michigan , and I've always wanted to play and win the Big East Tournament," said Jackson . "It's a big reason why I came to Notre Dame."
"Are you kidding?" said Carter. "This is a place where dreams are made. There's no greater motivation for a team than to win here."
For Colin Falls (14 points on four-of-10 shooting) a Big East title would have been "something that would move this program to the next level." It also would have provided the platform to send this worthy senior off with aplomb.
A small army of Notre Dame administrators made the trip to Gotham this week, and they were in no rush to fly back to SBN.
As for the Big East draining energy from its participants, well Syracuse did lose in the first-round of the NCAA Tournaments the last two years after a pair of Big East title runs. But, on the other hand, Connecticut has won five Big East titles and went a collective 20-3 with two national titles in its subsequent NCAA appearances.
"We came in here," said Harangody, "knowing that Notre Dame didn't have history here. We (wanted) to make some."
Well, it wasn't truly made in 2007, but perhaps this is a starting point. Notre Dame didn't blink in this loss. It was just done in by a superb Georgetown player and an open Carter look that was off by just the slightest of margins.
The new-look Irish completed its regular season with an outstanding 24-7 record, matching the most wins this program has ever had before the NCAA Tournament. Digger's 1973-74 team was 24-2 in the regular campaign. Four years later it was in the Final Four.
Is the same progression in the plans for Brey's program? Could it happen even faster? You watch the way this team plays with desire and ability, and you think anything is possible.
And that is why this one hurts. This was a team that was capable of cutting down the nets on Saturday evening. And wouldn't that have made for some special parties on the first weekend of Spring Break?