NEW YORK – He stepped out of the New York Knicks locker room – Notre Dame's temporary dressing room – broad shouldered and with a genuine smile of satisfaction. And that says a lot about Luke Harangody.
From a personal point of view, his day in Manhattan couldn't have been worse if he had lost his meal money in Three-Card Monte. The junior power forward learned late in the afternoon that he had not been chosen to repeat as Big East Player of the Year. And then he went out on the Knicks' home floor a few hours later and set off a stink bomb.
Three-for-17 from the field landed Harangody on the bench for more than 15 minutes of Notre Dame's first-round Big East Tournament game against Rutgers. He went to the sidelines with seven minutes to play – after badly missing a jumper with the Irish up a mere six points – and never returned.
His teammates didn't miss him. Notre Dame played its best basketball with its stud out to pasture, wearing down young Rutgers, 61-50, at two-thirds full Madison Square Garden to advance into the second round of the Big East Tournament.
The way the victory was achieved pleased Harangody to no end.
"I couldn't throw the ball in the ocean," he laughed. "They were better off without me. It was nice to see the guys respond."
Notre Dame, the 10th seed, is now 18-13 overall and meets 7th seeded West Virginia Wednesday night at 7. It will need Harangody to be fresh and effective to advance. The Mountaineers, who enjoyed a first-round bye, had 17 offensive rebounds against the Irish in Morgantown on February 18.
"We had to get the first one," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "Now that we have, we're back in the ‘Let's make it interesting' mode."
There were no style points for this victory. Rutgers, finishing its season 11-21, entered having scored 85 points total in its previous two games. When the Scarlet Knights trailed 28-19 at the half, the Notre Dame media guide was consulted for the fewest points ever allowed by the Irish in a Big East game. In case you are interested, it's 48, in a 61-48 victory over Georgetown on March 4, 2004.
That marked seemed certain to fall when Notre Dame went up 45-32 with 10 minutes to play in the contest. But the Scarlet Knights – who have five freshmen and sophomores in their nine-player rotation – put together a 10-3 run that made it an uncomfortable 48-42 with seven to go.
And that's when Brey banished Harangody to the pine for good.
"He was struggling," Brey said. "The shot blockers Rutgers has back there (Gregory Echenique and Hamady Ndiaye) pulled him out a little bit. So we played a little bit different front line. (We used) the personnel that we felt was going to get it done for us."
Nash, in fact, stepped out of character with a pair of made free throws with 58 seconds left. Rutgers ' Corey Chandler had just scored in transition to cut Notre Dame's lead to 55-50. After the Irish inbounded, Nash found himself with possession of the ball just over mid-court. The Scarlet Knights' coaching staff could be heard on Eighth Avenue screaming to foul the sophomore.
Who could blame them? Nash had made three of his last 14 free throw attempts. But on this occasion, he coolly swished two. The game was not in doubt again.
"The coach trusted me to keep me in the game late," Nash said later, sitting at an interview table in the Garden that normally would feature Harangody. "I wanted to reward him."
"I was making fun of his free throw shooting when we warmed up," Harangody said. "He told me, ‘Hey, all I have to do is make one when it counts.' He made two big ones."
Also coming up big in the second-half was point guard Tory Jackson, who had 12 points, six rebounds, and four assists. The junior will have to play that well consistently if the Irish are to make a long run in this tournament.
Jackson certainly has the physical capability of going long. Despite the length of the season, he still has the shoulders, chest and arms of an outside linebacker.
"We just have to go out there again and lay it on the line," Jackson said. "We can't think about the NCAA Tournament, we can't think about anything other than West Virginia and competing as hard as we can."
Brey did campaign a little bit for his team, challenging the assembled media to "name me one bad loss we have had this year." (This typist was too respectful to say "St. John's, for one, Cincinnati, for another" in public.) And this victory over Rutgers won't mean a thing if the Irish lay an egg against West Virginia .
But Notre Dame did win and advance. And that's no small accomplishment for a team that had only won five Big East Tournament games in its previous 13 visits. And it's a particularly notable achievement considering it was done without much of anything from Harangody.
The smile the big guy wore was justified.
(Alan Tieuli is the Editor-In-Chief of IrishEyes Magazine and can be reached at Tieuli@aatandsonspr.com)