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Men’s Basketball: Thriller for the ages

Andrew Owens | Monday, February 11, 2013

When the Irish players arrived at their lockers prior to the latest thriller between Notre Dame and Louisville – an epic that will likely live longer than the Big East itself – they found a prop from Irish coach Mike Brey that served as the theme in Notre Dame’s 104-101, five-overtime triumph at Purcell Pavilion on Saturday night.

Brey, who often jokes with Louisville coach Rick Pitino about the teams’ propensity to decide the annual contests in overtime (five of the last six matchups between the teams have now required extra periods), placed boxing gloves in each of the players’ lockers to show his team they were in for another knockout fight in front of a primetime audience.

“[On Friday] he showed us a highlight tape of boxing knockouts and he said that tomorrow is going to be a 15-rounder,” senior forward Jack Cooley said. “We’re like aw, no matches go 15 rounds. And then we played five overtimes today. That’s absurd.”

Jerian Grant did not make a single field goal in the first 39 minutes of action, but the Irish junior guard singlehandedly erased an eight-point deficit in the game’s final 45 seconds. After exploding for three consecutive 3-pointers, Grant put forth one last heroic attempt, but this time he hit a layup and the ensuing free throw with 16 seconds left to tie the game at 60.

The Cardinals failed to get a shot off at the other end, and Grant’s performance – 12 points in 45 seconds – forced overtime in front of a sellout crowd.

“I just got in the zone,” Grant said. “Coming into this game, I wanted to make a statement for myself. I kind of want to lead my team. So I had to make plays.”

In postgame interviews, several players compared Grant’s heroics to that of NBA legend Reggie Miller, who scored eight points in 11 seconds to beat the New York Knicks in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals.

“Never in my life [have I seen that],” sophomore guard Pat Connaughton said. “If there’s one person I would say could do it, it’s Jerian, but I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”

Once the No. 25 Irish (19-5, 7-4 Big East) reached overtime, they had to overcome losing four players to foul trouble on top of the continued absence of graduate student guard Scott Martin to injury. Three players who rarely see the court were forced to assume leading roles in the five overtime periods, most notably senior center Garrick Sherman, who scored 17 points and corralled six rebounds in 22 minutes after seeing no action in regulation.

“It’s amazing how different guys step forward, but we’ve had that already this year with Scott Martin going down and [senior center] Tom Knight came through for us,” Brey said. “We’ve had guys do that and I think it’s a little bit of a trademark of our program: Guys deliver when we ask them to deliver.

“[Sherman] has set himself up to help us and what he did was fabulous. All of the sudden we’ve got another thing going on for us that wasn’t there earlier.”

In a contest Notre Dame led 27-24 at halftime, six of the eight Irish players reached double figures by the time the three-and-a-half-hour marathon finished. In all, the lead changed 26 times and the score was tied on 16 occasions.

“It was a typical Notre Dame-Louisville game,” Pitino said. “They just made some incredible shots. … We’ve got to give them a lot of credit because I’ve never seen shots like that, and I’ve been coaching a long, long time.”

Cooley was charged with a controversial foul – his fifth – with 6:54 remaining and the Irish trailing by six points. For the final 32 minutes, the star forward was in the unfamiliar position of cheering for his teammates from the bench. With 11 points and 11 rebounds, Cooley recorded his Big East-leading 17th double-double before committing his fifth foul.

“I almost felt like I let down my team fouling out that early,” he said. “To be able to see our team come through for us – we were freaking out. It was great to see.”

With seven Big East games remaining, Notre Dame finds itself tied for fifth in a jumbled conference race and Brey said the Irish intend to use the momentum to their advantage the rest of the way.

“The one thing I told our team before we went out the last time was that this nucleus, when there’s been hyped-up games – Syracuse last year, Kentucky – they’ve delivered on these stages in this building when there’s a lot expected and I thought they did that tonight,” Brey said. “They just kept finding ways. Something like this you can certainly build on.”