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Men’s Basketball: Still fighting

Chris Hine | Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Granted, the NIT isn’t as important as the NCAA Tournament, but don’t say these games mean nothing.

Sure, it’s a tournament for those rejected from the Big Dance. And sure, Notre Dame would rather be on its way to one of the Regional finals this weekend, like many thought it would be at the beginning of the season.

But the NIT means something to Notre Dame.

For all their struggles this season, the Irish have a small chance at redemption, a chance to ease the sting of their disappointing season. One could argue that winning an NIT title could only cause more hurt, and lead to the inevitable question, “Well, where was that type of play all season?” But Notre Dame has rightly chosen not to dwell on that thought and has instead channeled its frustration in an attempt to salvage some satisfaction from the 2008-09 season. The Irish take their next step toward that goal Wednesday, when they host Kentucky at the Joyce Center.

The NIT certainly means something to Tory Jackson, who hit the game-winning shot Thursday, going coast to coast after New Mexico tied it with 7.9 seconds left. Jackson then stood on Notre Dame’s bench as he celebrated with his brothers, then donned Lepre-Juan’s green hat for his postgame interview on ESPN.

“I’m just thankful to be playing and thankful to be here in practice,” Jackson said prior to practice on Monday. “Sometimes, you think about, we always complain amongst each other in practice and we hate it sometimes, but you’ve got to be thankful to be here, because a lot of teams aren’t doing that.”

It certainly means something to his teammates and coach, who exploded off the bench in jubilation after a last-second heave from New Mexico rimmed out.

“I was glad they were celebrating,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “The one thing about them that’s interesting, they haven’t shown emotion all the time. Last year when we got the NCAA Tournament bid, you know how teams jump up, they kind of were like, ‘Well what do we do?’ … It was kind of nice to see them getting wacky.”

It certainly means something to the official crowd of 3,013 that took time out from their lives – and watching the NCAA Tournament – to watch Notre Dame blow a 14-point lead over a team it should’ve easily beaten, only to cheer like hell as the Irish came back for the win.

“The fans that we care about are the ones that are going to cheer us on regardless,” senior forward Zach Hillesland said. “The ones that show up to NIT games and cheer like it was the middle of the Big East season.”

And it certainly means something to Notre Dame’s four seniors who get to keep playing basketball at Notre Dame, even for just a few more days. If there’s one thing more disappointing for those seniors than missing the NCAA Tournament, it’s having your college career come to its inevitable end, a crushing feeling they can put off for a little while longer.

“I know that’s kind of an issue, these people are going to say, ‘Well, it’s the NIT, and it’s not the Big Dance,'” Hillesland said. “But I started playing basketball because it was fun and we’re having a great time right now and it’s better to have your season extend as far as possible than to hang up the shoes and head into the offseason early.”

Once the Irish do go into the offseason, these seniors are done at Notre Dame and will close the book on four years of their lives they can never relive or recapture.

“It means a lot,” senior Kyle McAlarney said. “We want to hopefully win here, but it means a lot to just keep on playing, keep this thing going and keep surviving. Because you don’t want this thing to end – the camaraderie, the excitement in the locker room, that’s what this is all about.”

It’s just the NIT, but when it’s all you have left, it means everything.