Given New Life, Irish Advance at MSG

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With under a minute left in Thursday's quarterfinal against South Florida, it looked like Notre Dame might be heading back to South Bend early. The Irish trailed 45-42, and with just 14 points since the break, had been struggling to put the ball in the hoop for most of the second half.

But basketball, and the BIG EAST tournament in particular, reminds us frequently, that anything can happen.

With 39 seconds to play, Jerian Grant stole the ball from Victor Rudd, was immediately fouled, and hit a pair of free throws to make it a one-point game.

The sophomore guard's play suddenly awakened the Garden crowd and breathed new life into the Fighting Irish, who had been otherwise been left for dead.

But hey, this is not the first time this year's team has bounced back after being written off. How about the 20-point comeback last month at Villanova?

It's not the first time the Irish have defied expectations and found ways to win. Look no further than the ninth place BIG EAST preseason prediction that they turned into a 13-5 record and third seed in this week's tournament.

In the final minute, South Florida had a chance to seal the game with a late layup, but missed. Later, the Bulls were at the line to extend the lead, but missed the front end of a one-and-one. After that, they committed a foul that gave Pat Connaughton a chance to tie or take the lead.

The freshman hit one of two, knotting the game at 45. The Bulls could not score on the final possession and the game went to overtime.

With a second chance, the Irish made the most of their opportunity.

In the extra period, Eric Atkins, who had been scoreless for all of regulation, came through with six key points, including a big three-pointer, helping lift Notre Dame to a 57-53 victory.

Connaughton and Grant led Notre Dame with 12 points apiece, while Scott Martin added 10 to go along with 12 rebounds, for his third double-double of the season.

It was a strange game from the start. Thanks to 80% shooting and four 3-pointers, South Florida jumped out to a 20-8 lead, less than eight minutes into the first half. Some fans were already counting the Irish out.

But as it has all year, Coach Brey's squad was resilient, using an 18-0 run to take a 26-20 lead, holding the Bulls scoreless for more than nine minutes.

Despite the fast start, South Florida managed just 25 points over the final 32:42 of regulation.

In the second half, it was Notre Dame that went nearly 10 minutes without a field goal. Later, the Irish hit a pair of three pointers, before going without a basket for the final 6:43 of regulation. They shot just 20% and made only four shots from the field in the second half.

Not always pretty, but again, the Irish found a way to get the job done.

And it all started with Grant's steal, when an otherwise uneventful, and honestly, mediocre game quickly turned into a heart-stopping thriller. It certainly did not match the excitement of the afternoon's Cincinnati-Georgetown game, but as fans came to their feet, you got the sense, "Oh, so this is the BIG EAST tournament. This is what people mean when they talk about the allure of Madison Square Garden."

By no means was it a classic, but Notre Dame survived to play another day and in the end, that's reason enough to be happy with tonight's game (kind of like the ecstatic fan in this video).

The Irish are one step closer to reaching Saturday night in the Garden - a goal that Coach Brey and his team have mentioned often, as it is something the program has never accomplished.

Still, before Notre Dame thinks about the BIG EAST final, it will first have to get past Louisville tomorrow night (or, at this point, tonight) at 9 pm ET on ESPN.

And it only seems fitting that the path to Saturday must go through the Cardinals, who topped the Irish 83-77 in overtime of last year's semifinals.

These programs have a recent history of writing dramatic scripts. Just over two months ago, Notre Dame knocked off Louisville (then ranked eleventh in the country) in double overtime at the KFC Yum! Center, 67-65.

In total, the past four Notre Dame-Louisville games have been decided in overtime, five of the last six have needed more than 40 minutes, and six of the nine head-to-head contests since the Cardinals joined the BIG EAST in 2005, have been gone to an extra period.

Past series history and Friday night at the Garden. It's going to be an exciting night. Get ready.

And of course, stay tuned to and Irish UNDerground for more coverage of the Irish in the Big Apple.

- Josh Flynt ('11)

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