#20 Wasn't Pretty, But It Counts

That's four straight 20-victory seasons for the Notre Dame men's basketball program. Quite an accomplishment, even if #20 on this season was a near-disaster in Morgantown. After blowing a 15-point second-half lead, the 20-5 Irish survived on a Dan Miller hoop and stayed in the hunt for the Big East West Division title. You can breathe now, all is OK in Irish hoop nation.

Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes™

February 18, 2003

Miller Just in Time
To Save 20th Irish Victory

By Alan Tieuli
IrishEyes Magazine

(IE) – When you're in a desperate mood you don't tend to be picky. 

So it was with the Notre Dame basketball team last night in Morgantown, West Virginia.  After a heartbreaking setback at Syracuse on Saturday, the Irish just wanted a victory – any old victory – to snap a road losing steak and also keep pace in the tight Big East Conference West Division race. 

Mission accomplished, barely. 

Dan Miller was perfectly awful with his shot for 39-plus minutes making just one of his first 12 field goal attempts.  But the senior still earned a heroic role, banking in a lay-up with 18.8 seconds remaining to give Notre Dame its winning points in a 56-55 victory over pesky West Virginia before a below-average gathering of 5,865 fans at the West Virginia Coliseum. 

Sophomore point guard Chris Thomas (13 points, eight assists, zero turnovers) was most responsible for the game winner, weaving through a seam in West Virginia's zone defense to find Miller alone under the hoop.  The exchange effectively nullified a three-point basket by West Virginia freshman Kevin Pittsnogle with 39.4 seconds left.  The trey had given the Mountaineers their first lead of the second-half, 55-54, and had every member of Notre Dame Nation gasping, "Oh no, not again!"   It was, after all, another Big East newcomer – Gerry McNamara – who beat the Irish with a three at the Carrier Dome Saturday. 

"We're making a habit of this," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, somehow still with dark hair at the temples despite his team playing five consecutive games that have been decided by a collective 12 points.  "I'm really proud of how we handled the game situation there at the end." 

The 10th ranked Irish are now now 20-5 overall, 8-3 and one-half game behind Syracuse, tied for second with Pittsburgh in the West Division.  Brey has now won 20 or more games in each of his three seasons on the bench, and this was the fourth consecutive season overall Notre Dame has hit the 20 mark.  The last time this program had such extended success was when Digger Phelps had six straight 20 victory campaigns, from 1983-84 through 1988-89. 

"This is my fourth twenty win season, and it's something to be proud of," said Irish senior sharpshooter Matt Carroll, who had 16 points and 10 rebounds in a typical performance that defines his captaincy. 

Notre Dame also won its first division road game of the season and avoided losing back-to-back games for the first time.   The last Irish team to go through an entire season without a losing streak was the 21-9 1988-89 squad. 

The happy stats out of the way, it's necessary also to dwell on the less than favorable numbers.  The Irish led in this one 48-33 with 11:37 to play and continued a disturbing trend of blowing double-digit second-half leads.  Brey gave credit to West Virginia (13-10, 4-7), a program he calls one of the most improved in the Big East. 

"I take my hat off to West Virginia, they played fearlessly," said Brey. "This is a totally different program from last year.  I hope we don't play them again in the tournament." 

Drew Schifino had 19 points for the Mountaineers and Patrick Beilein, freshman son of West Virginia head coach John Beilein and the subject of playful verbal taunts from the ND student section during the team's Jan. 29 visit to the Joyce Center, had 13 points.  The pair was at their most effective during a 17-4 run over a 10-minute stretch that made the game a white-knuckler. 

Yes, Notre Dame scored four points over 10 minutes in the second-half.  It also did not reach the one-and-one in the first-half.  It only induced West Virginia to commit four team fouls in the first 19 minutes and 54 seconds of the second-half.  The Irish, all in all, had a team-low seven free throw attempts after 27 against the Mountaineers last month. 

The Irish shot 38-percent from the field and again, for long stretches, were totally reliant upon Thomas and Carroll for all of the offensive production.  At times it looks like the Irish are playing three-on-five when on offense, particularly when they are quick shooting and losing second-half leads. 

To that point, then, it was pleasing for Irish fans to see Miller get the game-winning basket.  And also to see a key reserve, Torrian Jones

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