Men’s Basketball: Steel curtain
Chris Khorey | Thursday, February 21, 2008
No. 21 Notre Dame has won 34 straight games at home, but the Irish haven’t beaten Pittsburgh anywhere since 2003.
One of those streaks will end tonight at 7 p.m. when the Irish host the Panthers at the Joyce Center.
The last time Notre Dame beat Pittsburgh was on Feb. 9, 2003, when all of the current Irish starters were still in high school. The No. 10 Irish took down the No. 4 Panthers 66-64 in the final seconds.
Notre Dame (19-5, 9-3 Big East) has not faced Pittsburgh (19-6, 7-5) since Jan. 4, 2006, a 100-97 Panther victory at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh.
Irish senior captain Rob Kurz said he and his teammates have followed the Panthers closely despite not facing them on the court.
“It’s the only [Big East] team we haven’t played in a while, but we’ve seen them on TV, so we know them pretty well,” Kurz said.
The last meeting between the two squads at the Joyce Center was on March 5, 2005. The Panthers won 85-77 and dominated inside, scoring 56 points in the paint.
Kurz was a little-used freshman at the time.
“I watched that whole game from the bench,” he said. “They just murdered us on the backboard.”
Cleaning the glass will be key in the 2008 edition as well, but Notre Dame matches up better this time. The Irish and Panthers are No. 1 and No. 2 in the conference respectively in rebounding margin.
“They pride themselves on defense and rebounding,” Kurz said. “It will be key for us to rebound as a team.”
Injuries have beset this year’s Panther squad. Small forward Mike Cook is out for the season because of a knee injury he suffered in a 65-64 win over Duke on Dec. 20.
Kurz, who grew up near Cook, said it will be strange to play the Panthers without his friend in their lineup.
“I’ve known him since seventh grade,” Kurz said. “I’ve played against him many times.”
Point guard Levance Fields has also been slowed because of an injury for Pittsburgh. He played 20 minutes on Friday in a 72-54 loss to Marquette, his first action since a Dec. 29 loss to Dayton.
Irish coach Mike Brey said he expects Fields to be near 100 percent for tonight’s game.
“I’m sure Fields is going to be a lot healthier than he was last Friday,” Brey said.
In the absence of Cook and Fields, the Panthers will be led by forwards Sam Young and DeJuan Blair, who combine for nearly 30 points per game.
“If you’re going to beat Pitt, you have to defend your paint,” Kurz said.
After Connecticut’s 65-60 win over DePaul Tuesday, Notre Dame fell into fourth place in the Big East, half a game behind the 10-3 Huskies. The top four teams get a bye in the conference tournament next month.
If the Irish can beat Pittsburgh, they will draw even with Connecticut and be half a game behind Big East co-leaders Georgetown and Louisville.
But Brey said the regular season championship hasn’t entered the team’s mindset yet.
“We want to be in position for a bye in the Big East tournament,” he said. “That’s about as deep as we’ve gotten as far as big picture.”
For Pittsburgh, tonight’s game represents an opportunity for both conference and national advancement. The Panthers dropped out of the Top 25 after their blowout loss to the Golden Eagles on Feb. 15.
The loss also dropped Pittsburgh to seventh in the Big East.
“They’ll be ready to play,” Brey said. “They’re a proud program.”
Irish great Austin Carr will be honored at halftime of tonight’s game for his induction into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
Carr played at Notre Dame from 1966 to 1971 and averaged 34.5 points per game during his varsity career. He set the NCAA Tournament record for most points in a game with 61 against Ohio University in 1970.