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Men’s Basketball: Garden games

Pat Leonard | Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Notre Dame won five of its last seven games to earn the Big East Tournament’s No. 12 seed. Irish players raked in individual awards this week. And the squad faces No. 5-seed Georgetown today at 2 p.m. on ESPN in the conference tournament’s first round with an opportunity to avenge a mid-season double-overtime loss.

So Notre Dame enters Madison Square Garden with the attitude anyone would expect from a team that lost 10 league games by a combined 35 points – one of ambitious confidence.

“We know we’re the last guy in,” Irish coach Mike Brey said in a Big East coaches teleconference Monday. “We’ve had to scratch and claw to get here. I just want to be loose, and that’s obviously the role of the non-favorite.

“But I also want us to be confident, because everyone in this league we’ve played with pretty darn well.”

The Irish played the Hoyas tough down the stretch Jan. 24 at the Joyce Center and lost despite some late-game heroics. Shooting guard Colin Falls made a 3-pointer, got fouled and sank the foul shot at the end of regulation to tie the game and send it to overtime.

But after playing possession-for-possession with Georgetown for the next five minutes, point guard Quinn missed a last-second layup at the end of the first overtime, and the Hoyas won the next five minutes to seal the game and send Notre Dame to a 1-5 Big East record.

Notre Dame’s fortunes have shifted somewhat since that loss.

Though the team is the conference tournament’s lowest seed – and Georgetown normally brings a large fan contingent to the Garden – the Irish have multiple individual players who are playing the best basketball of their careers.

Quinn earned All-Big East first team honors Monday and received the Big East sportsmanship award Tuesday in New York for being a “two-year team captain who has carried himself with class,” according to an official conference press release.

Notre Dame guard Russell Carter also received recognition Sunday for recent elevated play. Carter averaged 21.5 points per game, 6.5 rebounds and 3.0 steals in wins against Providence and DePaul last week and was named to the Big East weekly honor roll for the first time in his career.

But the Irish know those awards do not change their current situation of facing a No. 23 nationally-ranked Georgetown team that lost its final regular season game to South Florida (1-15 in the Big East) 63-56 Saturday and is determined to prove the defeat a fluke.

“We’re certainly thrilled to be going to New York,” Brey said. “[But] we look at [today] as the third round of the Big East.”

That’s because Notre Dame played its wins over Providence and DePaul as do-or-die situations – a loss in either contest would have bumped the Irish off the plane to the Big Apple.

But Notre Dame was able to win down the season’s stretch, Brey said, because the team learned from its early schedule woes instead of dwelling on the negative.

“We’re a better team,” Brey said. “I think we’ve been hardened by [the close losses]. You can either crumble … or hang in there and be hardened by the experience.”