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Men’s Basketball: Solid regular season marred by early tourney exit

Mike Monaco | Wednesday, May 15, 2013

For the seventh straight season, the Irish reached the 20-win mark. For the fourth straight season, the Irish reached the 10-win mark in Big East play. But for the third time in four years, Notre Dame failed to reach the second round of the NCAA tournament.

The Irish (25-10, 11-7 Big East) put together a 23-8 regular season, reached the semifinals of the Big East tournament and earned a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament. But Notre Dame fell to No. 10 seed Iowa State, 76-58, on March 22, and extended its Sweet 16 drought to 10 years.

“I really would think it’s the next step for our program,” Irish coach Mike Brey said after losing to the Cyclones. “We’ve been so consistent in the regular season, and we haven’t been able to do much here. That’s what keeps me up at night and keeps me trying to figure out how we can be better at it. That’s what’s very extremely disappointing about tonight. Go back to the drawing board and try and figure it out.”

Against Iowa State, the Irish shot just 4-for-17 from 3-point range, while the Cyclones drilled nine of 21 trifectas en route to the victory. Notre Dame got down early after committing 14 first-half turnovers, and Iowa State led 35-23 at the intermission.

“Off those turnovers, they were able to run and get easy points,” Irish senior forward Tom Knight said after the game. “We were trying to limit that, but with 14 in the first half, it’s really hard to stop them from scoring easy points when you have that many turnovers.”

Irish junior guard Jerian Grant, who committed a team-high five turnovers, said the ball-control issues were uncharacteristic, and the loss was especially disheartening.

“You know, it hurts. All season, it felt like we had a team this year that could make a deep run in March, and I really believed that,” Grant said after the game. “I just feel like we picked the worst day to have our worst game. All through the year, I felt like we turned the ball over less than 10 times a game. To do it 14 times in the first half is something that’s hard to come back from. It’s something we don’t normally do, is turn the ball over, and that really hurts.”

Throughout the season, the Irish were not a team prone to coughing up the ball. Heading into the Iowa State game, Notre Dame was tied for 24th nationally in fewest turnovers per game at 11.1. The Irish, behind the typically stellar backcourt play of Grant and fellow junior guard Eric Atkins, ranked second nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.54 and sixth in assists per game at 17 per contest. 

Grant, who was named to the All-Big East second team, led the Irish in scoring (13.3 points per game) and assists (5.5 per game) while averaging over 36 minutes a night. Atkins, meanwhile, spearheaded the offensive attack and finished with one less assist than Grant over the course of the entire season while averaging 11.2 points per game.

While the junior duo controlled perimeter play, Irish senior forward Jack Cooley picked up right where he left off after a breakout junior campaign. The 6-foot-9, 246-pound workhorse racked up 19 double-doubles and earned a spot on the All-Big East first team while averaging 13.1 points and 10.1 rebounds for the season. Cooley was the only player in the conference to average double figures in both scoring and rebounding.

After being named to the all-league team, Cooley said he thinks opposing coaches were particularly impressed with his tenacity and relentlessness.

“Every coach comes up to me after every game and tells me they appreciate how hard I play,” Cooley said. “It means a lot to just have it come true and this award. It means so much.”

Cooley and the Irish broke out to a 12-1 record against the nonconference portion of its schedule. A 64-50 victory over then-No. 8 Kentucky, the defending national champions, highlighted the opening stretch for Notre Dame. Powered by Grant and Atkins in the backcourt, the Irish thoroughly outplayed the Wildcats in the first half and opened up a 36-25 advantage at the half. For the game, Notre Dame limited Kentucky to 40 percent shooting from the field.

“I’m really proud of our group,” Brey said afterward. “We really prepared like an experienced team the past two days. I thought we played like an experienced group, defended excellently for 40 minutes and got into our offensive rhythm when we really needed to. Our guards were fabulous, controlling the tempo of things. But [it’s] something for us to build on.”

The Irish vaulted off the victory over the Wildcats with seven more wins, which took them into Big East play. But after winning its first two league tilts, Notre Dame dropped three of four conference matchups, a stretch culminating in a 63-47 loss to Georgetown at Purcell Pavilion on Jan. 21.

Irish graduate student forward Scott Martin was limited to 18 minutes against the Hoyas, and Brey said after the game that Martin’s knee was clearly bothering him. Martin, who battled multiple knee injuries throughout his career at both Purdue and Notre Dame, would not play again. On Feb. 28, Brey announced the Irish were shutting down Martin for the remainder of the season.

But the Irish responded as a reinvented team. Knight was inserted into the starting lineup alongside Cooley, and the Irish morphed into a bruising, defensive squad at times. Without Martin, the Irish ripped off seven wins in nine games during late Jan. and Feb. One of those wins came against eventual national champion Louisville on Feb. 9 in arguably the greatest college basketball game of the season. 

The Irish trailed by eight points with 44 seconds remaining in regulation, at which point Grant scored 12 points in 23 seconds to erase the deficit, tie the game at 60 and force overtime.

It certainly wouldn’t be the only time the game advanced to an extra period. Notre Dame and Louisville battled through five overtimes as Saturday turned to Sunday at Purcell Pavilion. The Irish took the lead for good when Atkins scored a layup with 1:20 remaining in the fifth overtime, holding on for the thrilling 104-101 victory.

“Where do you want me to start?” Brey asked after the marathon. “Because I don’t know where to start. Unbelievable. I’m really proud of my team because many times we were down and in the overtime and kept fighting back. Everybody was part of it tonight. It’s one of those magical nights in our building. They were really good, hard to score on. I can’t even remember all of the big plays different guys made to get us to where we’re at with a win like that. We’ve had a lot of good wins in this building but I can’t remember one more thrilling or dramatic with different twists and turns.”

The Irish would meet the Cardinals twice more before the season’s end, but Louisville got revenge on both occasions. In the second of the two meetings, the Cardinals knocked Notre Dame out of the Big East tournament in the semifinals for the third consecutive year. The Irish will head to the ACC next season having never reached Saturday night’s championship game at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

“I’m very disappointed we could never get to Saturday,” Brey said after the 69-57 semifinal loss. “I guess I got to say can we get to Sunday afternoon now in the new league or whatever. But I’m thrilled that we played in the semis in such a magical night here.”

Following the Big East tournament, the Irish received a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year. Yet again, however, Notre Dame couldn’t advance past the opening round, much less the opening weekend.

“Now we’ve got to maneuver a new league next year,” Brey said after falling in the first round. “We’ve got to come out of a new league. But that’s like the unfinished business for this program. It’s really well respected nationally. It had a great identity in the Big East. It will be interesting to see what it is in the ACC. We even got to the semis of the Big East [tournament] four years in a row. 

“But this is a hump we can’t get over yet. But we’ll keep trying to figure it out.”

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu