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Irish head to NYC for tourney

Allan Joseph | Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A year ago, an Irish squad that lost two senior leaders to graduation surprised many in the Big East by earning a 14-4 league record en route to a No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, where they were defeated in the semifinals by Louisville. This year, a Notre Dame team that lost veteran leaders to graduation, injury and early departure again exceeded expectations by earning a No. 3 seed in the postseason tournament — but this year, the Irish hope to go farther.

“We were so close [to the title game] last year and it still stings a little bit,” senior guard Scott Martin said. “We still have that in our memory, so hopefully we can build on that.”

The Irish (21-10, 13-5 Big East) struggled to find a rhythm in the early part of the season, highlighted by a 29-point loss to Missouri and a 20-point loss at Gonzaga at the end of November. After muddling through the early part of the conference slate, Notre Dame found its stride at the end of January when it upset then-No. 1 Syracuse 67-58 to kick off a nine-game winning streak, the longest league winning streak in program history. Now, Irish coach Mike Brey wants his squad to return to the mentality that helped his team hand the Orange their only loss of the season.

“You’re kind of trying to get back into a frame of mind that you were in before the Syracuse game,” he said. “Can you get back into that kind of practice routine … and that kind of psyche where man, you really needed each other? That’s the kind of mentality we have to have.”

The late-season surge was enough to earn the Irish a No. 3 seed and double-bye in the tournament, just two wins away from the title game. Notre Dame has never appeared in the Big East tournament championship game, which traditionally has taken place on Saturday night.

“[Getting to Saturday night] is something that’s been a goal for us,” Martin said. “Most of the year, we’ve talked about it as one of our points of emphasis this year, just trying to get there.”

In the quarterfinals, the Irish will face the winner of the South Florida-Villanova game, which took place after this Irish Insider went to print. The Irish beat the Bulls 60-49 in their only meeting this year, a Jan. 10 meeting in Purcell Pavilion. Despite his team’s familiarity with the South Florida squad, Martin said the Irish are well aware of the challenge the Bulls would pose.

“They’re big … and they rebound well, which is something we kind of struggle on at times,” Martin said. “But we’re just excited to get out there and get to work and get kind of a routine before we play Thursday.”

Notre Dame won a 74-70 overtime thriller at Villanova on Feb. 18, a victory marked by a late comeback to earn the seventh of nine consecutive league wins.

No matter the opponent, the venue might be the single biggest challenge the Irish face. The Irish are 55-45 all-time in Madison Square Garden, but lost their only contest there this year and have notoriously struggled to shoot accurately in the famously round arena, especially in the Big East tournament, where the Irish are 8-16 all time.

Brey said that while his team has struggled there in the past, last year’s quarterfinal game showed Notre Dame is capable of success in the Garden.

“You’ve got to get past that psychologically,” he said. “We were in a good rhythm last year … maybe that’s what I’ll talk to [my team] about.”

Martin said he and his teammates will try do exactly what their coach has told them to do.

“There’s always in the back of your head that we’ve dropped some games there and haven’t shot the ball particularly well,” Martin said. “It’s still a basketball court. We try to enjoy it and relish the moment, but try to get some wins too.”


Contact Allan Joseph at ajoseph2@nd.edu