The Lights Go Out Again

NEW YORK - Tuesday night, Mike Brey and Luke Harangody stood in front of the klieg lights in the main ballroom of the Grand Hyatt, proudly accepting Big East Coach and Player of the Year honors.

Two evenings later, after midnight, they waited patiently behind a thin blue curtain in the bowels of Madison Square Garden . Their penance for a lousy 89-79 defeat in the Big East Tournament was to listen to the final five minutes of Marquette's winning press conference.

"I'd trade Coach of the Year for a couple of victories here in a heartbeat," Brey said. "And Luke would do the same."

Yet again, Notre Dame's shiny baubles turned out to be fools gold. Just like 1997, when John MacLeod and Pat Garrity swept the conference's top honors, the Irish failed badly in their first game in the tournament. Eleven years ago it was an 84-66 loss to Syracuse . This one was far more discouraging.

Notre Dame entered this quarterfinal round contest versus Marquette ranked 14th in the country, third in the Big East, and was poised to reach 25 wins for the first time in 34 years.

And when Tory Jackson hit a rainbow three with 18:38 to play in the game, all was right in the world. Notre Dame led, 44-34, and all the naysayers in the (212) area code were going to be turned into believers.

Hardly.

Marquette (#24, 24-8) made 17 of its final 25 shots and outscored Notre Dame, 55-35, over the final 18 minutes in a contest that could have been a coronation but instead challenged Irish credibility.

"Discouraging? Sure it is," said guard Tory Jackson, who had 10 points and nine assists, but no answer defensively for Marquette's starry backcourt of Jerel McNeal (career-high 28 points), Dominic James (10) and Maurice Acker (11). The trio was eight-for-11 on three-point shots.

"This is the second year in a row we come in tournament play, do-or-die, and we can't come through," Jackson continued. "I think we'll be OK, but you get better by winning, not by just competing."

Jackson must be quickly becoming a scholar in Notre Dame hoop history, at least in this era. The Irish are now a dreadful 4-13 in Big East play and no Notre Dame Player of the Year has even made it to Friday night in Gotham. In addition to Garrity's loss to Syracuse, Troy Murphy was a quarterfinal loser to Miami (2000) and Pittsburgh (2001) the two times he was named the conference's best. Murphy's eight-point, two-for-11 effort in that Pitt loss may have been one of his three worst games in an Irish uniform.

Harangody was equally ineffective. He picked up two fouls early and only played seven minutes in the first-half. It didn't seem to matter when Notre Dame led by six at the half (38-32), but the Irish really could have used an extra cushion when Marquette caught fire in the final 20 minutes. Harangody finished with 13 points, five boards, no assists and final fouls.

"I got to watch myself better than that," he admitted later. "I should never pick up two fouls that early. It got me out of my rhythm."

And now the Irish will settle into their on- and off-campus digs to watch Marquette , a number six seed, play Pittsburgh , a seven, in the late Friday night semifinal in Gotham. In the early game, another dark-uniform (number five seed West Virginia ) advanced to face top dog Georgetown .

"It was there for us," admitted senior Rob Kurz, who played his last collegiate game at Madison Square Garden . "We could have made a run this year. It's important to do well in this tournament, it gets you a lot of respect in the East, and gets people talking about your program. But we have another tournament to play, and we have a chance to end on a real good note."

Brey noted that his stellar team has not lost two in a row all season, and doesn't plan on beginning next week in the NCAA Tournament. He just knows he is happy to be getting a break from the rugged Big East.

"Let's face it," he said quietly in a hallway later, not far from the locker-room of the New York Knicks, another squad who understands failure in this building, "Marquette was not a good match-up for us. We're just not quick enough to guard both the perimeter and the inside."

Marquette scored 92, 83 and 89 points against the Irish this year. And McNeal (28 points, six boards) was so good on this night that Brey said nobody in the league is playing better than him right now.

Notre Dame wasn't bad offensively, it just wasn't as uncannily efficient as it was in its home victory over the Golden Eagles on Feb. 9, according to Brey. All five starters finished in double-figures (led by Kyle McAlarney's 20 and a career-high 14 from an energetic Zach Hillesland), but the bench contributed a measly seven points, while Marquette's diminutive Acker was raining threes when it mattered most.

"If you can play on Friday night at the Big East Tournament," said Marquette coach Tom Crean, "you can play with anybody."

Alas, Notre Dame hasn't proven that. And if you don't think the BET can mirror NCAA performance, try out this stat. In eight years on the Irish sideline, Brey has four wins in the Big East Tournament, four in the NCAA.

(Alan Tieuli is the Editor-In-Chief of IrishEyes Magazine and can be reached at Tieuli@aatandsonspr.com)


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