Friday Night Lights

The resurgent Irish look to earn a first-ever trip to the Big East Championship game with a win vs. No. 3 seed West Virginia tonight.

Another low-scoring defensive tussle is likely in the works in tonight's nightcap at Madison Square Garden when the No. 3 seed West Virginia Mountaineers take on No. 7 seed Notre Dame.

The Mountaineers, winners of five of their last six and 11 of 15 since suffering their first conference loss to the Irish on January 9, head into tonight's semi-final on an emotional high after a last-second banked three-point shot propelled them past upset-minded Cincinnati Thursday evening.

The Irish continued their late-season surge last night with a 50-45 quarterfinals win vs. second-seeded Pittsburgh. Notre Dame has won six consecutive games entering tonight's semifinal. The contest marks the third time in the program's 15-year Big East history it has reached the Tournament's semifinals, though the 2010 squad's two victories this week were the first such occurrence in a single tournament since the Irish joined the Big East in 1995.

Tonight's game will follow the 7 pm (ET) semifinal pitting No. 8 seed Georgetown vs. No. 5 seed Marquette. Tip-off time for the evening's second matchup is tentatively set for 9:30 pm. Both games can be viewed on ESPN.

Below is a closer look at tonight's matchup between the Irish and the Mountaineers.

A Tale of Two Halves

Notre Dame used a blitzkrieg first half to overwhelm then-No. 8 West Virginia in the January 9 victory at the Purcell Pavilion, jumping out to a 20-point halftime lead. The Irish knocked down 18 of 24 shots in the first and tallied 17 assists in the opening 20 minutes (vs. just 5 turnovers).

The Mountaineers recovered with a focused defensive effort, stifling the Irish in the second stanza, allowing just five field goals – four by senior forward Luke Harangody – before falling short in a furious rally, 70-68.

West Virginia had a chance to win at the buzzer but Da'Sean Butler's well-covered three-point shot (pictured) rimmed out.

Two troubling elements of the contest could resurface tonight for Mike Brey's Irish:

  1. The inability to score vs. West Virginia's consistent defensive length
  2. A mismatch on the backboards. In the January loss to Notre Dame, West Virginia collected 13 offensive rebounds in the game's first 20 minutes. (Notre Dame grabbed none, though it only missed six total shots in that span).

The first point above will certainly be repeated at some point tonight, as the Mountaineers boast five 6'7" to 6'9" athletes that are able to guard multiple positions (and therefore switch defensively vs. every screen without the repercussion of an obvious mismatch), yet also feature two defensive guards, especially backup point guard Joe Mazzulla, that are capable of nullifying the penetration of Irish senior Tory Jackson.

Jackson's as well as his backcourt mate Ben Hansbrough's ability to create offense in the lane keys Notre Dame's Burn offense, one predicated on prolonged offensive possessions in search of a quality shot in the waning seconds of the shot-clock.

The latter point might become moot if Notre Dame's frontcourt quartet of Harangody, Tyrone Nash, Tim Abromaitis, and Carleton Scott can continue to battle on the glass as they have over the last 10 contests.

Notre Dame has become a much better rebounding unit since an embarrassing January 31 loss at Rutgers (in which they were pounded to the tune of 43-30 on the boards).

West Virginia can jump and bang with anyone (head coach Bob Huggins' troops led the Big East in Rebounding Margin at +5.0 through 18 conference games this season), but the Irish are a far more dedicated group after a shot goes up than that which the Mountaineers faced earlier this season.

Harder and Harder to Breathe?

West Virginia hasn't shown the consistent offensive continuity to suggest it could run away with tonight's contest. But as illustrated in the first matchup, their defensive acumen will frustrate the Irish at times, and likely create more than a few fast break opportunities after errant shots.

Notre Dame's commitment to transition defense and its subsequent ability to play from either a 2-3 zone or physical mismatch situation thereafter will be key to a seventh consecutive quality defensive effort and potential seventh straight victory.

Two key matchups tonight will be the aforementioned point guard assignment for Mazzulla and starter Daryl "Truck" Bryant vs. Jackson, and the athletically gifted Devin Ebanks vs. Ben Hansbrough.

Ebanks, a 6'9" forward with a massive wing span, has the athletic skill to stay with the penetrating 6'3" guard on the perimeter or matchup with Scott on the backboard. That luxury affords Huggins freedom to mix and match vs. Abromaitis (with Da'Sean Butler a likely candidate to shadow Notre Dame's man-in-motion), Harangody and Nash throughout the evening.

A healthy Harangody burned the Mountaineers for 24 points (9-15 from the field) while Abromaitis chipped in with 17 points on just seven field goal attempts in January.

But neither the still-recovering Harangody (bone bruise in his knee) nor Abromaitis (massive shooting slump) is playing at the same level as in the first meeting. And the Irish will need a major contribution from suddenly quiet Carleton Scott as a result.

Scott has fouled out of both games thus far in the Tournament and has yet to make a consistent impact as a help-side defender. He was also noticeably absent on the glass in last night's win over Pittsburgh, collecting just one board in 25 minutes.

The redshirt-junior remains a confident jump shooter and facilitator of the Irish half-court sets, but Notre Dame needs his presence as a finisher and scrapper inside the lane as well.

The Battle at the Midway Point

Notre Dame's patient offense and dedicated defense should keep the game close for the first half and well into the second. But a crucial juncture of the contest will be (approximately) the midway point of the second stanza: a time when teams playing their third game in three days can begin to show signs of fatigue...offensive sets become non-threatening; defensive backboards patrolled with less vigor.

Jackson hasn't rested for a second in the Tournament (and nary seven minutes this conference season). Hansbrough earned five minutes of pine time due to foul trouble last night, but like Jackson, has played a staggering number of minutes since mid-February.

Harangody's injured knee will play three games in 74 hours after just 11 minutes of action at the tail end of a three-week respite. Abromaitis, mired in a 3 for 23 three-point slump, hit the rookie wall two weeks yet continues to battle for 35-plus minutes per contest.

The Irish must find a way to fight through fatigue midway through the second half, as coming up empty in multiple offensive possessions would likely spell doom vs. this athletic group of Mountaineers – a team that doesn't need an impressive offensive set to score, and whose best offense is sometimes derived after a teammate's missed shot as the troops embark on a tip drill at the rim.

Can it Continue?

Six Irish opponents have connected on an aggregate 23 of 99 three-point attempts in Notre Dame's head-shaking winning streak. The Mountaineers, though capable at 33.6 percent from long range as a team, rank behind four of the already vanquished Irish opponents in the category.

Notre Dame has turned its season around with toughness in the lane and a commitment to closing on vs. three-point shooters.

They'll continue to shorten the game by bleeding the shot clock; a wise play as West Virginia is an intermittently focused team – one susceptible to mental errors and loss of focus vs. a patient attack.

I assume, however, that a Big East semifinal contest vs. a team to which they've already lost will capture the attention of the Huggins' gang from the outset.

Last night, the more focused team prevailed in both matchups.

If that's the situation again tonight, I believe the remarkably revamped Irish have the edge.

But dead legs are on the horizon…can the Irish recover enough to earn the program's first trip to the Big East Finals tomorrow night?

The law of averages and strain of the last 74 hours is due to take a toll around 10:35 pm (ET) tonight.

West Virginia 61 Notre Dame 54


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