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ND Men’s Basketball: Digger gives blessing for ND to smash record

Chris Hine | Friday, December 7, 2007

Notre Dame began “the streak” with a 66-61 win over DePaul on March 4, 2006, and continued it with victories over then-No. 4 Alabama, Louisville and Marquette last season. Saturday night, the Irish have a chance to make history if they can beat Northern Illinois to post their 25th consecutive win at the Joyce Center.

A win would break the previous record of 24 consecutive wins set between February of 1973 and December 1974, a streak that included one of the most famous wins in Notre Dame basketball history – a 71-70 triumph over No. 1 UCLA, which snapped the Bruins’ NCAA-record 88-game unbeaten streak. Notre Dame’s coach from 1971-91, Digger Phelps, said he’s pulling for this year’s team to break that record.

“All streaks are made to be broken and [Coach Mike Brey’s] a great guy and these kids are good kids, so go for it,” Phelps said in a phone interview Thursday.

Phelps, now an ESPN analyst, was in attendance at Notre Dame’s (6-2) 68-59 win over Kansas State Tuesday at Madison Square Garden where he saw Irish forward Luke Harangody out duel the much-hyped Kansas State freshman Michael Beasley to the tune of 19 points and a career-high 14 rebounds.

“[Harangody] was awesome,” Phelps said. “He put on a show at the Garden. He’s a great kid. They’re all great kids. What I like about this team, this year – their attitude. There are no issues with personalities and I think that’s what makes this team special. You build that internal bond and you build that team chemistry, you do things you have to do in games to get it done.”

Phelps said the Irish have an opportunity to make it into the Sweet 16 this year, thanks in part to the guard play of sophomore Tory Jackson and junior Kyle McAlarney. For McAlarney, a win Saturday would mean a lot to the Irish, given the rich tradition established under Phelps in the 1970s and 80s.

“I guess as soon as the season started, Coach Brey was talking about it and we were talking about it together. It’s just something special when you have an opportunity to make your mark in the history of Notre Dame basketball,” McAlarney said. “But at the same time, we can’t get too over our head about and we have to focus on Northern Illinois.”

Phelps led Notre Dame to numerous NCAA Tournament berths during his tenure and to its only Final Four appearance in 1978.

“What made us that good back then, was that the students never quit on us,” Phelps said. “Every home game they showed up, our place was a zoo.”

While student attendance at early-season, non-conference teams usually pales in comparison to attendance at Big East games, Brey said there’s no excuse for students not to show up to help break the record.

“I think we sold 2,200 student season tickets, and I’m expecting them to be out,” Brey said. “This is the last time we’re going to see them before the Big East starts and for them to be there where we have an opportunity to set the home record. The sixth man better be out or they may have to run sprints when they come back from Christmas break.”

Harangody said student support provides makes big games, such as last year’s wins over Marquette and Alabama, more memorable.

“When we see [the students] out there, they really do give us an extra lift,” Harangody said.

A hallmark of Notre Dame’s student section through the years has been its ability to get inside the heads of opposing players and make Notre Dame an intimidating venue to visit. And even though final exams begin next Friday, forward Zach Hillesland still hopes the students can fill the stands Saturday night.

“We know there’s big exams, big tests, big projects coming up, but this is a very special record,” Hillesland said. “I wonder how many fans are actually aware of the record that’s potentially being broken on Saturday. To have that kind of support would be a really special moment.”

Northern Illinois enters the game 2-6, with only one starter, guard Ryan Paradise, averaging double figures (10.6 points per game).

Tip off is at 7 p.m. Saturday.