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Men’s Basketball: Staying home

Chris Hine | Tuesday, March 17, 2009

It’s been six days since Notre Dame NCAA Tournament hopes expired when the clock hit zero in its Big East tournament loss to West Virginia.

Following the game, Notre Dame’s players coped with the thought that such a promising season in November – when Notre Dame was ranked No. 9 in the country – would likely end in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT).

That thought became a harsh reality on Sunday, when Notre Dame learned it would host Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) in the opening round of the NIT Tuesday at 9 p.m. in the Joyce Center. How do the Irish feel about that?

“Numb is a good word,” senior guard Kyle McAlarney said. “But I’ve tried to focus on, ‘Let’s win the NIT.’ It’s something special. You can put a banner up here. Getting to the NCAA Tournament was something we wanted to accomplish, but I think we had a good grip on reality when things really weren’t going that well.”

Things really weren’t going well for the Irish when they lost seven-straight games over the span of 26 days in January and February – a prolonged losing streak that was the main reason the Irish were practicing during the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on Sunday instead of watching it to see where they would be seeded.

Notre Dame’s fate was sealed last week when the Irish were knocked out in the second round of the Big East tournament. After a sloppy first round 61-50 win over Rutgers, Notre Dame fell to the Mountaineers 74-62. The Irish dug themselves a 18-point halftime lead, and despite a second-half rally, couldn’t recover.

“I think I knew going all the way through February that this could be our destiny,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “I think when you were up against the wall coming off a seven-game losing streak, you’re very realistic about where you could end up at the end of the day.”

Brey added: “Certainly we’re disappointed we’re not in the NCAA, but you can’t get distracted by that.”

The distractions have certainly died down in the past week. Now, there is no more speculation, no more what-if scenarios to play out for Notre Dame to get into the NCAA Tournament. It’s happened, the Irish didn’t make it in, and for the team and its fans, it’s painful.

The healing process begins tonight against UAB, and so does the chance to hang a championship banner in the Joyce Center, though hardly the banner the Irish and their fans expected to see hanging at the beginning of the season. All that’s left to do is play.

“We had time to digest this,” senior forward Zach Hillesland said. “When we lost to West Virginia, the writing was pretty much on the wall that we were probably not going to make the NCAA Tournament. When we finally found out it was just, ‘Let’s go and get ready now, let’s get ready to play.'”

After saying their goodbyes to the home fans following their 74-55 win over St. John’s, Notre Dame’s four seniors will play at home, at least one more time.

“It’s a little weird,” McAlarney said. “You think at senior night, ‘Wow this is probably my last game here,’ but it could play into our hands a little bit and we’re on our home court, so we’re going to keep it going as long as possible.”

If the Irish kept it going as long as possible, they’d end up back at Madison Square Garden playing for the NIT title to earn a small amount of redemption and consolation during such a tough season.

“At least from the standpoint of being a senior, it’s win or your career is over,” Hillesland said. “Playing with these guys the past four years has been a great experience and something I’m not ready to end right away.”

Student tickets will be distributed at Gate 3 beginning at 7:30 p.m. The first 1,000 students in attendance, with a Saint Mary’s, Holy Cross or Notre Dame student ID will receive a free ticket. All other tickets will cost $5.