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Men’s Basketball: Shrugging off the Demons

Pat Leonard | Monday, March 6, 2006

It might as well have been Junior Night.

Notre Dame junior guards Russell Carter and Colin Falls made key baskets down the stretch on Senior Night – and combined to score their team’s final 10 points – as the Irish downed DePaul 66-61 Saturday at the Joyce Center.

The win clinched Notre Dame a Big East tournament berth.

On a night when seniors Chris Quinn, Torin Francis and Rick Cornett remained quiet in the scoring column, Carter led the Irish with 22 points, including 15 in the second half, to earn a victory he said his senior captains deserved.

“We want to keep these seniors playing as long as possible,” Carter said after the game. “If we could have them play until next year and give them another year of eligibility, [we] would do that.”

Quinn scored just 11 points, but dished 10 assists to two turnovers, and the seniors went out with a win despite a grueling regular season.

Following Rutgers’ victory over St. John’s Sunday afternoon, the Irish became the No. 12-seed in the upcoming conference tournament held in New York City. Notre Dame now is scheduled for a first-round match up with No. 5-seed Georgetown at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.

“It’s been an up-and-down season, not exactly the way we wanted it to go,” Irish forward Torin Francis said after the game, his final at home in a Notre Dame uniform. “But early on in the season, we talked about [how] our main goal was to go to the Big East tournament. And even though we had to fight down to our last game to get in, we’re still in it.”

Francis (10 points, eight rebounds) nearly cost Notre Dame a late-game lead with 40.4 seconds remaining and the Irish up a possession, 62-59. The senior forward missed the front end of a one-and-one after Notre Dame coach Mike Brey elected to inbound to Francis (62.3 percent foul shooting) and leave Kyle McAlarney (90.9 percent) on the bench in a foul situation.

Blue Demons center Marlon Brumfield made a put back of a Sammy Mejia miss on the ensuing possession to cut the Notre Dame lead to 62-61. But Falls then sank two free throws, and Carter hit two more after a DePaul miss to seal the victory.

Carter scored eight straight points during a stretch in the middle of the second half. The run began with two free throws at the 16:34 mark and ended on a 3-pointer at 13:19, which gave Notre Dame a 47-39 lead.

The junior, who has been referenced several times as a possible candidate for Most Improved Player in the Big East this season, also locked down Mejia (23 points, 3-of-5 3-pointers) when he guarded him for the game’s final 20-to-25 minutes, holding DePaul’s main scoring threat to seven second half points.

“Rus waited to sign late his senior year … because he thought he was better than who was recruiting him at the time,” Brey said afterwards. “He was very right … And we’re fortunate enough to have him.”

Carter’s second half output maintained a lead the Irish grabbed and never relinquished following Francis’ basket with just over five minutes remaining in the first half (23-21).

DePaul threatened in the second half, forcing Quinn and Falls out of their individual offensive rhythms.

The Blue Demons closed the gap to two on a Wilson Chandler jumper to make the score 59-57 with 2:09 to go. But after an Irish miss, Quinn took a charge on Mejia, and then Falls hit the shot of the game – a deep 3-pointer to extend the lead to 62-57.

“He’s been hitting big shots for us his whole career,” Cornett said, “so it wasn’t a shock to me.”

The Blue Demons scored again before Brumfield’s put back but could not prevent Falls and Carter from sinking foul shots to hang on.

“If you would have told me [after losing 89-86 to Louisville Feb. 4 and falling to 1-8 in the Big East] that we’d put ourselves in a position to play on senior day to get to New York, I would have thrown a parade,” Brey said. “Are you kidding me?”

Brey said he thought Quinn did a masterful job Wednesday of being patient and controlling the game’s tempo, assisting on three straight possessions at one point and having the poise to defer to his teammates. Quinn was guarded the entire game by the 6-foot-6 Mejia.

Notre Dame started out hot, making 7-of-8 field goals to open the game and led 17-12 with 11:53 remaining in the first half.

Mejia scored DePaul’s first seven points and 11 of its first 14 as the teams exchanged early leads. The Blue Demons used Mejia’s fifth basket to spark a 9-2 run. Chandler then scored two baskets and Mejia followed with a 3-pointer to send the Irish into a television timeout at 7:03 down 21-19.

But the Irish went on a 9-2 run of their own out of the timeout.

Quinn, Francis and forward Rob Kurz all scored to give Notre Dame a five-point lead, 28-23, at the 3:23 mark.

And each team traded scores, with the Irish getting a backdoor Quinn lay up and a last-second Carter follow-up tip-in at the buzzer to send Notre Dame into halftime with a 35-27 lead.