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Men’s Basketball: Must-win games sneaking up as end of the season nears

Fran Tolan | Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The term “must-win” is thrown around frequently in sports but Notre Dame knows that it must approach its two-game road trip – which starts tonight at West Virginia – almost as if the Irish season depended on it.

“At this point, every game is a hinge game,” Irish senior co-captain Zach Hillesland said. “There’s not any game left that we can write off.”

The Irish (14-10, 5-7 Big East) sit just one game behind West Virginia in the conference standings and trail Providence, who they will face Saturday, by two-and-a-half games.

“It’s a chance to get back to 7-7 in the league and put us in great position for the stretch run,” Hillesland said. “Two very good teams ahead of us in the standings, and any time you have teams ahead of you, you want to knock them off.”

Wins over West Virginia and Providence would give the Irish an edge in a tie-breaker if they were tied with either at the end of the season. Such an advantage could be crucial, because Notre Dame sits in 10th place in the competitive Big East and would secure a first-round bye in the conference tournament by improving to eighth place or better.

“It’s huge for us. Two great opportunities to kind of pick people off that are in front of us and get back what we’ve lost,” Irish senior co-captain Kyle McAlarney said.

The Irish, who have given up 71.8 points per game, held each of their last two opponents – Louisville and South Florida – to 57 points. But against West Virginia tonight, the Notre Dame defense may have more difficulty than it did in home wins over the Cardinals and Bulls.

“I wish [our defense] could be a little more consistent, quite frankly, especially on the road,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “We’ve done it [at home] … but I don’t know if we’ve been able to do it for 40 minutes on the road against a good team.”

The Irish are 2-6 on the road this season and head into Morgantown to face a Mountaineers team that is coming off a 93-72 home win over then-No. 13 Villanova last Friday. In that game, West Virginia forward Da’Sean Butler poured in 43 points on 12-of-23 shooting.

Despite the prospect of facing the hot-shooting Mountaineers, the Irish said they may now be tougher than they were before their current two-game win streak. In the victories, sophomore Tyrone Nash emerged as a force down low to complement the rest of the Irish frontcourt. Nash scored eight points in just 10 minutes against South Florida and pulled down an average of 4.5 rebounds in the two games.

“Ty Nash has helped a lot. It’s given our back guys, especially Luke Harangody, a little help down there,” McAlarney said. “He bangs, he hits people. We don’t mind him getting a few fouls early. He knows his role, he knows what he can and cannot do.”

The Irish may need Nash’s inside presence against West Virginia and Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins, who typically instills toughness in all of his teams.

“Him rebounding really helped us out, getting an extra body in there for the bigs and knock some people on their butt a little bit,” Irish point guard Tory Jackson said of Nash.

After the contest against West Virginia, the Irish will head to Providence, which has lived up to Brey’s pre-season prediction that the Friars would be the surprise team of the Big East. Providence sits in sixth place in the conference at 16-9 overall and 8-5 in Big East play.

Brey and several of his players said the next two games are not necessarily do-or-die showdowns for Notre Dame. Still, with a road game at Connecticut and a home tilt against Villanova still looming on the schedule, the Irish know the results of the next two games will go a long way toward deciding the outcome of their season.

“It’s a week where you can make a move. That’s how we talked about it,” Brey said. “There’s still a lot of basketball to play after that as well, especially winning these two here at home, getting some momentum and re-establishing some identity. You certainly have a chance this week to make a move in the standings.”