Last year they fell in overtime – their chance to win at the end of regulation dashed by a Ben Hansbrough pull-up jumper that wouldn’t fall.
Two years ago it was a Tory Jackson three-pointer bouncing dead the front of the rim at the buzzer; top-seed West Virginia moved on to win the championship game.
The 2007 Big East Tournament ended in similar disappointing fashion, this time it was Russell Carter who had a beyond the arc look for the win that found iron, backboard, but no net.
Tonight, Notre Dame’s program looks to culminate 17 seasons of Big East play with its first ever trip to the conference finals. Four semi-finals trips have been forged (they lost in 2002 as well, 82-77 to Caron Butler and Connecticut) – no finals berth attained.
No chance to celebrate late; no understanding of center stage on Saturday night at the World’s Most Famous Arena.
"I really believe this group, of all my teams, is most equipped to get to Saturday night," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "It's something we talked about in our program for a while. It's the next step. I think our program has been extremely consistent and solid in the Big East, but playing on Saturday would mean a lot, and I think this group has really digested it. Of course, we played the same guys who stopped us from getting there last year in Louisville."
Notre Dame held a 14-point halftime lead in that missed opportunity last spring. The Cardinals roared back to force overtime – the norm in the recent history of the series that has seen four consecutive battles go to OT, a remarkable five of the last six, and six of nine since 2006, a time span that encapsulates the Brey vs. Rick Pitino era.
“Every time we play them, it’s never (over in) regulation,” Brey noted following last night’s win. “It’s incredible.”
Aesthetics aside (and by “aesthetics” I basically mean, “made shots”) last night’s quarterfinal win over South Florida offered ample evidence the previously undervalued Irish could serve as a tough out, both over the next two nights in Manhattan and next week at an NCAA Tournament site to be determined.
Notre Dame fell behind 20-8 behind an unlikely barrage of Bulls shots from long range (South Florida is the worst shooting three-point team in the Big East). The Irish ripped off 18 straight to take a 26-20 advantage but lost that momentum at two crucial junctures of the second half:
- Trailing 38-33 at the 10:00 minute mark and mired in a stretch nearly that long without a field goal, sophomore forward Alex Dragicevich calmly pulled the trigger on a 22-footer from the top of the key. The result was his first field goal of the evening, increased confidence (he drilled another three possessions later to cut the lead back to two, 41-39), and most important, enough game pressure on the Bulls to tighten their throats a bit as the clock ticked down. South Florida made just two shots in the final 9:24 and following Dragicevich’s first drill shot from beyond the arc.
- Trailing 45-42 with 38 seconds remaining – and playing the last 6:07 without a point – Notre Dame’s defense, in this case, redshirt-freshman Jerian Grant, bailed out its stagnant offense again, with Grant stripping Bulls guard Victor Rudd and drawing a reach-in foul thereafter. Grant’s ensuing free throws cut the lead to one, the game later tied when freshman Pat Connaughton split a pair – following a full-court feed from Grant – to send the game into overtime.
Two forgotten plays in the wake of Eric Atkins’ overtime heroics and the shoddy stat sheet, but Notre Dame would be home in South Bend without either.
Odds and ends from a unique evening in The Garden:
- Notre Dame won a tournament basketball game in which it hit just four field goals in the second half, entering that stanza with just a two-point advantage…
- From the 7:25 mark to the 6:47 mark of the second half, Notre Dame scored six points on two shots – a 38-second span. Those six points in 38 seconds are more than they scored in the previous 10 or ensuing 6:47 as the game meandered toward overtime…
- Las Vegas listed the over/under (total points by both teams) in the contest at 108. It wasn’t until Connaughton’s pair of free throws with 0.1 remaining in overtime that the Irish and Bulls topped the total, finishing at 110 in 45 game minutes…
- Notre Dame didn’t commit a foul until the 2:23 mark of the first half; the Bulls shot just five free throws in the 45-minute contest…
- The Irish assisted on 15 of their 18 field goals including each of their first six and eight of their last nine baskets. Only Jack Cooley (jumper), Scott Martin (jumper) and Jerian Grant (jumper) scored unassisted buckets, with each occurring in the first half…
- The teams combined to shoot nearly 50 percent from long range (16-33) but just 33.8 percent (23-68) inside the arc…
- The Bulls started the evening hitting 8 of their first 10 shots but missed 32 of 45 thereafter. Notre Dame shot 7 of 11 from the field during its 18-0 first half run but made only 11 of its next 35 to conclude the contest.
- Notre Dame is 3-0 in overtime this season (including a January 10 at tonight’s foe, Louisville) and has prevailed in six of its last seven such contests. The lone defeat? Louisville, 83-77 in last year’s semi-final.