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Stopped dead

Andrew Soukup | Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Torrian Jones stood with his arms out at his side, a stunned look on his face.

Providence’s Tuukka Kotti’s free-throw shot had rolled off the right side of the rim, but teammate Ryan Gomes grabbed the ball and banked in a lay-up, pumping his fists as the referee signaled he had been fouled. All Jones could do was stare blankly at his teammates, wondering how in the heck the Irish had been beaten to that rebound.

With the flat-line performance Notre Dame turned in Tuesday night, Jones didn’t have to wonder very long.

Gomes made the free-throw to give the Friars a 16-point lead and to encourage Irish fans to trudge to the exits. If the Irish were in a hospital, a doctor would have looked at the clock and said, “Time of death – 5:31 in the second half.”

By the time Donnie McGrath drained a 3-pointer with 14 seconds left in the game, etching a 73-59 win in the media guides, Providence’s needle had popped Notre Dame’s bubble. In what was arguably their biggest game of the season, Notre Dame suffered their worst home loss in Irish coach Mike Brey’s four years at the helm of the Irish.

And now, Notre Dame’s road to the NCAA Tournament runs through Madison Square Garden, where the Irish have won exactly two games in the Big East Tournament in the eight years they’ve been a conference member.

“It’s pretty much pointless,” a disappointed Jordan Cornette muttered, “to talk about how important this game was now.”

What made the Irish fade away in their most important game of the season? A team that remained resilient enough to weather a 2-6 stretch in January and early February and knock off three teams ranked in the RPI top 30 uncharacteristically fell apart in a game where a victory might have punched their dance card.

Of course, credit is due to Providence’s ferocious, aggressive zone defense that forced Chris Thomas and Chris Quinn to hoist 3-points from five feet behind the arc. And the lack of an inside scoring presence and Notre Dame’s inability to drive meant that if the Irish missed a shot, they missed their chance. Depth problems caused by the loss of Torin Francis combined with a whistle-happy officiating crew fostered over to the point that, when Jones became the third Irish player to foul out, anexasperated Brey barked at the official, “I got nobody left!”

While Brey had praised his team’s ability to keep their composure all season long, even he wondered if the intense pressure placed on his team before Tuesday’s game contributed to Notre Dame’s fish-out-of-water performance.

To understand the Irish mood after the game, one only had to approach the normally jovial Cornette. Instead of firing off witty one-liners and clever analysis of Notre Dame’s play, the junior forward could only stammer out bland, one-sentence responses in a barely intelligible voice.

“We had big hopes coming into this game,” Jones said, summing up the collective attitude running through the Irish locker room. “It’s tough to put so much into it and fall short.”

Now, Notre Dame’s players say they must stop thinking about postseason tournaments (something that must be really tough to do, given that they’ve the Irish have said all along they aren’t thinking about the NCAA Tournament). But for a team that was the basketball equivalent of dead money in early February, the fact that the Irish managed to claw their way back onto the bubble in the first place is an accomplishment in itself. “Quite frankly,” Brey said, “it’s amazing we even got to the bubble.”

Now, the Irish turn their attention to their last three regular season games against UCLA, Georgetown and St. John’s before the Big East Tournament likely determines their postseason destiny. As Notre Dame showed with a three-game stretch in February, they have a chance to get hot if they need to.

But for whatever reason, the Irish didn’t get hot Tuesday in a game they desperately needed to.

“The Big East Tournament is our NCAA Tournament,” Thomas said. “We’re going to go at that like it’s our last games of the season.

“And who knows, it very well may be.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Andrew Soukup at asoukup@nd.edu.