Making Their Presence Felt

The last time Notre Dame had a record this gaudy it was ranked No. 1 in the country. The Irish may not be that good yet, but they addressed a weakness Wednesday night with a dominating performance on the glass versus West Virginia. IrishEyes Magazine Managing Editor Alan Tieuli reports from the sold-out Joyce Center.

Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes™

January 29, 2003

Irish Beef Up Numbers
With Inside Toughness

By Alan Tieuli
 IrishEyes Magazine

NOTRE DAME, IN (IE) – The last time Notre Dame had a record this good – 17-3 – it was the top-ranked team in the country.  That's pretty heady stuff.

And now the 10th ranked Irish, after pounding West Virginia, 88-69, tonight before a satisfied, but subdued, capacity crowd at the Joyce Center, may have another appropriate identity.

"Twenty-two (offensive) rebounds.   Big, tough Irish.  Wow," said head coach Mike Brey, using an exaggerated deep voice, while glancing at a stat sheet that showed his team with a whopping 51-27 rebounding edge over the young, lean Mountaineers. "I may frame this, shellack this."

Rebounding had been the Irish's Achilles heel coming into this contest. They entered the contest 13th in the Big East Conference in rebounding margin and dead last in rebounding defense.  But it all changed on this night with some unlikely contributions.

Junior reserve center Tom Timmermans sparked the Irish early, matching his career-high in points (nine) and setting a new personal best in rebounds (eight), as Notre Dame muscled its way to a 36-30 halftime advantage and methodically added to it after intermission.

A bloodied Dan Miller (seven stitches on his chin after a second-half) spill, Torin Francis and Jordan Cornette all contributed to the rebounding carnage as the Irish set a season high for boards.  West Virginia started three freshmen and two sophomores, and doesn't dress a player who weighs more than 220 pounds.  It was men against boys.

"This was a team we could destroy on the boards," said Timmermans, who had matched his career high in boards by the 12-minute TV timeout in the first-half. "We had to take advantage."

With the victory Notre Dame improved on its best-ever Big East start, edging up to 5-1 in conference, second best in the West Division and only one-half game behind leading Pittsburgh.  The 17-3 record is the program's best since Digger Phelps' 1978-79 unit that spent four weeks at No. 1.  That squad finished 24-6 overall, losing to Magic Johnson and Michigan State in third-round of the NCAA Tournament.

This Irish squad may have a little magic, too.  It certainly has star appeal, as displayed again on this night by sophomore point guard Chris Thomas (18 points, seven assists, three steals, six rebounds).  It also has one of the school's top all-time scorers.   Senior Matt Carroll – playing despite a grotesquely bruised right forearm – notched 18 points and moved past Bob Whitmore into the 10th spot on the Irish career scoring ledger.

"It's quite an honor, with all the outstanding players who have come through here," said Carroll.  If the 6-6 Pennsylvania product stays healthy and Notre Dame goes deep into the post-season, he has a chance to finish his Irish career as high as sixth on the list.

West Virginia dropped to 11-7 overall, 2-4 in the Big East, and headed back to the hills with a slice of humble pie.  Heralded freshman Kevin Pittsnogle (13th in the conference in scoring) had predicted a Mountaineer victory, a fact not lost on the Irish players.  He finished with just 11 points.  Sophomore Drew Schifino – clearly one of the circuit's most improved members – had a game-high 20 points, but couldn't make up for his teammates lack of production inside.

"The funny thing was," said Thomas, "we knew everything they were going to run.  If we play defense like that, we can run through this league."

The Mountaineers, under first-year coach John Beilein, have cleaned house.  The dreadful Jonathan Hargett experience is over, and West Virginia is trying to build its program back using a system similar to Notre Dame.  It has worked at times, with quality victories over Florida and Miami.

"It's more spreading people out," said Brey.  "They have some skilled guys, not as much muscle.  We, and West Virginia, have had an advantage because we are both difficult to prepare for.   Our styles are different than anyone else in the Big East."

The positives for the Irish on this night were many.  Cornette had seven points, six rebounds, three assists and two blocks, contributing directly to eight consecutive, separating points in the first-half with two nifty dishes and a three-point jumper.  Francis bounced back from a slow start – and a quick benching in favor of Timmer Top Stories