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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 UND.com and Irish UNDerground for more coverage of the Irish in the Big Apple.

- Josh Flynt ('11)
Notre Dame kicks off its BIG EAST tournament action this evening at Madison Square Garden when it takes on South Florida at 9:00 p.m. (ET) in the fourth quarterfinal matchup of the day.

The game will be broadcast on ESPN, and you can hear the radio call on UND.com, but Irish UNDerground will also have all the angles in and around the action covered throughout tonight's game. Be sure to share your questions, comments and complaints and let your voice be heard throughout the Notre Dame nation.

Want to track all the action from your mobile device? No problem.

Simply click (or to be phone friendly, "touch") HERE.

The Constant in Notre Dame Basketball

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ND v Syracuse photo by Marcus Snowden (141).JPG

Over the course of every summer and fall, I run into a handful of Notre Dame alumni, degenerate gamblers and degenerate Notre Dame alumni gamblers, and for the next 5 to 10 minutes we go through the dreaded Larry David small-talk wringer.

"What are you doing nowadays?"

I signed a confidentiality agreement at work so I'm not really at liberty to share that information, but I can say and do say, "Hi, my name is Waiter, I'll be your zach this evening."

But the only question they really care about is, "How are the Irish going to be this year?"

If I wasn't a first-born and therefore in possession of a crippling people pleaser component to my personality, I'd say, "Bro-ham, I don't know, how's the stock market going to be this year?" But instead I give them some half-baked analysis of personnel and chemistry.

So, what I usually do is start with the guys I know best, then factor in an off-season improvement variable and go from there.

The worst is when I try to describe the younger guys. Part of me just wants to call up the young'uns and say: "You don't know what it was like back in my day. You didn't have to do the Band of Brothers beat down with the Dog Faced Gremlin (our strength coach). You don't know what 50 Day was. When I was your age, we didn't even have Facebook. We had TheFacebook. You know how much time was wasted typing "the" all those times when I could have been on Twitter? I'll never know because we didn't have that either, you spoiled brat."

Oh, sorry what was your question? How's the new kid, Pat Connaughton? I, uh, you know, I know for a fact that he has two legs so he's probably pretty good. After that, they realize that I don't have an abundance of useful information, and we part ways.

But over the past couple of seasons, another question has surfaced toward the end of the season, and that's, "Why and how is Notre Dame as good as it is?"

In previous years the first thing I would do is go down the list of players and what they have done well and how they have complemented one another, giving the players nearly all of the credit. And I could certainly do the same this year.

But it would not be a complete analysis, or an honest one.

Here is a team that lost its best and most experienced player, Tim Abromaitis, early in the season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament. At that point, I think everyone wrote off the Irish, including me. I thought they were going to go 0-20 in the Big East in 18 games. Yes, some of them were going to feel like double losses.

But then they started winning. Again. And again. The nine-game Big East winning streak that started with Syracuse was nothing short of amazing. If Biff Tannen from "Back to the Future" could have taken a sports almanac back a couple of months, I don't even think he would have been able to pull the trigger on those bets. So what's the best explanation for all their success?

Was it because of the tremendous development and magnetic hands of Jack Cooley? Certainly. Was it because they have the best defensive backcourt in Coach Mike Brey's tenure? Yes. Was it because of the emergence of Scott Martin as glue guy, defensive stalwart and leader? All of these things are reasons they have been successful, but we are still missing the X-factor.

It has taken me seven years to see it, but the X-factor is Brey.

To begin to understand Brey as a coach, you first need to understand his personality, and as far as characters go, he is an all-time American original.

You know the line from "Tommy Boy": "he could sell a ketchup Popsicle to a woman in white gloves"? Brey could sell white gloves to a woman already covered in ketchup Popsicles. He is a conversational chess wizard, always three, four, five steps ahead of the curve. His delivery is equal parts high school coach, Southern gentleman and a Leisure Suit Larry version of Phil Jackson. He has had enough one-liners to be able to retire and live off bumper sticker sales, and I can't wait for the day when he is a broadcast analyst, as he is one of the funniest dudes you'll meet.

During film sessions, it is not uncommon for Brey, in the middle of a play, to start saying: "You know, fellas, I just knew that shot was going in. The ball movement, the unselfishness, the basketball gods were in our favor on that one."

Ditching X's and O's for a karmic motion offense did not always make sense to me when I was in school, and that's probably why I could not hit a free throw to save my life.

After I graduated, I tried to get a graduate assistant's position (something Notre Dame does not have) with the team, not because that was my dream, but because I was an 18-year-old trapped in a 22-year-old body, and I didn't know which way was up. I was in a dark place.

When I went into the meeting with Coach, he said: "You have the kind of personality that can either heat the building ... or burn it down." What went through my head was, Yeah, well, if I don't find some kind of life direction or employment, I won't be able to pay for heat, let alone rent, and I'll most likely end up burning the apartment complex down -- whoa. How did you do that? How did you know?"

It would have been an entirely wrong decision to prop me up at that point in my life. It would have been mutually destructive. And he knew that, and told me as smoothly and thoughtfully as possible.

One of the first things Coach ever said to me turned out to be one of the most significant. It was during my first year, one of the very first practices, and I had forced up a terrible attempt at a 3-point shot. He pulled me aside later and said, "You don't need to reinvent yourself."

It took me seven years to figure out that he was not talking about on-court skills. He was talking about personality. And therein lies the rub. Don't reinvent yourself. The guys who try to reinvent themselves falter. He is not saying, "Don't improve," he is saying, "Understand who you are, and translate that to the court."

Immature players do not thrive in his system. Make yourself a man and you will have an open seat at the table. And that is not saying you cannot be a kid or that you cannot make mistakes, but when you step on the court and put that jersey on, you better take accountability for yourself and you better at least resemble a grownup.

Looking at this year's team, I see nothing but guys who routinely step up and make the right play, from freshmen to fifth-year seniors, and they all do it with a confidence that they did not have at the start of the season. And for anyone who has watched this team's trajectory over the past couple of months, it has been a master class in personality management and confidence-building. Coach has an intuitive feel for what guys are thinking, what they are going through, and what they need to hear to make improvements and be successful, and he only gets better as he gets older.

Coach Brey is not going to beat you over the head with any of this because he knows those lessons never stick. He pushes the buttons he needs to, and you cannot argue with the results. So, while it took some time for me to figure it out, this might be the best coaching job that he has done, and he certainly deserves a great deal of credit. He does not have the most talented team. He does not have the most athletic team. But what he does have is a team that earned a double-bye in the Big East tournament. That's what happens when you have the basketball gods in your pocket.

- Zach Hillesland

Irish Ready for South Florida

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Eight hours before tip-off, the Notre Dame men's basketball team visited The Sports Club/LA for a final walkthrough and shootaround. The club, located in Manhattan's Upper East Side, has a pair of basketball courts on the seventh floor. The elevators open directly to the gym floor, where there is a rock-climbing wall in between the courts.

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The Irish ran through some stretches, before walking through a few of the situations they might face against South Florida's offensive and defensive sets. After the quick walkthrough, Coach Brey caught up with UND.com to preview tonight's matchup. The team grabbed some water and took a break in the club lobby to catch the end of the Syracuse-UConn quarterfinal game.

Afterwards, the Irish returned to the hotel, where they will have a team Mass and pregame meal before heading over to Madison Square Garden later this evening.

Coach Brey's squad tips off tonight at 9 pm (probably closer to 9:30, following the end of the Louisville-Marquette game) against South Florida. Watch the action on ESPN and follow the live blog right here on Irish UNDerground.

- Josh Flynt ('11)

Game Day in NYC

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After two days in The City, it's almost game time. The Notre Dame men's basketball team took to Madison Square Garden this morning for a shootaround as they prepare for tonight's 9 pm quarterfinal against South Florida.

Upon arrival at the Garden, the Irish took the famous freight elevator up to the court. They don't call it the World's Most Famous Arena for nothing. It's pretty amazing to think about the celebrated coaches, athletes, musicians and performers who have taken that same ride up to the court, locker rooms or backstage area.

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Walking down the hallway towards the main floor, the walls are decorated with photos from some of the legendary games and performances that have passed through MSG over the years.

All-time greats such as The Rolling Stones, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Frank Sinatra, as well as some of this generation's most accomplished recording artists - Beyonce, Jay-Z and Coldplay, among others.

#2 seed Marquette was finishing up their walkthrough right before the Irish took the court, and as soon as they finished, Connecticut and Syracuse were arriving to get ready for their noon quarterfinal matchup.

The Irish returned to the hotel after the shootaround, but will head out to The Sports Club/LA later this afternoon for a final walkthrough.

Plenty more coming later today on Irish UNDerground. 9 hours until game time.

Sean McDonough, Bill Raftery and Jay Bilas will have the call (and the best view in the house) on ESPN.

- Josh Flynt ('11)

You Don't Want To Be ...

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... the man sitting across a chessboard from the three-time
BIG EAST Men's Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

BIG EAST Stage Is Set

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Get ready. Game time is less than 22 hours away.

After posting a 56-47 win over Villanova in the final second round BIG EAST game on Wednesday night, South Florida earned a quarterfinal berth and rematch with third-seeded Notre Dame. Anthony Collins scored 17 and Victor Rudd Jr. added 13 for the Bulls, who won their 20th game of the season.

The Bulls and Irish met on Jan. 10 in South Bend, a game that Notre Dame won, 60-49. As is often the case at Purcell Pavilion, the Irish used a big second half run to break the game open. With 9:17 to play, Notre Dame led 40-37, but over the next 5:07, the Irish reeled off 14 straight to build up a 17-point lead, on the way to their third victory of the young BIG EAST season.

Three Irish players scored in double figures, including Scott Martin who registered 15 points and 13 rebounds for his second consecutive double-double. Jack Cooley led all scorers with 16 points, and Jerian Grant added 14.

Forward Augustus Gilchrist led the Bulls with 13 points, while Jawanza Poland chipped in 12. Fittingly, Gilchrist and Poland finished the regular season as USF's leading scorers.

For more on that game from nearly two months ago, check out the highlights and Coach Brey's post game press conference.

Shifting attention to tomorrow night, it will be a matchup of overachievers. Notre Dame was picked to finish ninth in the BIG EAST this season, while USF was voted 14th. Instead, Coach Brey's Irish squad finished third in the conference (13-5) and Stan Heath's Bulls tied Cincinnati and Georgetown for fourth (12-6).

It will also be a battle of two strong defenses. Tonight's game marked the ninth straight contest in which the Bulls held their opponent under 60 points. Likewise, the Irish held opposing teams below that mark in nine of 18 conference games, including seven of those during the nine-game winning streak that began on Jan. 21 vs. top-ranked Syracuse.

On Tuesday, Heath was named the OppenheimerFunds BIG EAST Coach of the Year. The fifth-year USF head coach guided his team to a nine-game improvement over last year's 3-15 conference finish.

The tournament fun truly begins tomorrow, as the top-4 teams (Syracuse, Cincinnati, Marquette, and of course, Notre Dame) take the court for quarterfinal action. It all starts at noon as the top-seeded Orange face #9 seed Connecticut - a classic BIG EAST rivalry that has produced some memorable games over the years.

And in the evening, it will be your Fighting Irish in the spotlight - 9 pm on ESPN vs. South Florida. Check back to UND.com and Irish UNDerground tomorrow for more coverage of the Irish as they prepare for the big quarterfinal matchup in NYC.

- Josh Flynt ('11)

Courtside with Seth Davis

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BIG EAST Prep Continues for Irish in NYC

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It's day two for the Notre Dame men's basketball team in New York City. This morning, the Irish held their second practice at John Jay College, a criminal justice school in midtown Manhattan.

It was a busy day of classes and the elevators were jam packed, so the Irish elected for four flights of stairs, on their way to the Bloodhounds' gym. John Jay plays in the City University of New York (CUNY) Conference along with Brooklyn College, Hunter College, N.Y.C. Technical and the College of Staten Island, among others.

On each side, there are eight rows of wooden pullout bleachers, the kind you would see in your average high school gym. There's a second standing-room-only level overlooking the court, where a sign reads, "Occupancy by more than 179 persons is dangerous and unlawful." Not exactly on par with Madison Square Garden.

But that's beside the point. If Coach Brey were to pull a page out of Norman Dale's book in Hoosiers, the hoop still would have been ten feet - just as it is in the Purcell Pavilion, and just as it will be tomorrow night at the Garden.

The team ended practice with perhaps the best way to prepare for a game - situational drills. The clock was set to various situations, as the Irish simulated some of the potential scenarios they might face in the coming days.

Though Tuesday's slate of first round games was rather uneventful, if the past is any indication, the remainder of the BIG EAST tournament will be filled with late-game drama and last-second heroics.

Third-seeded Notre Dame will play in Thursday's fourth quarterfinal at 9 pm on ESPN against the winner of tonight's late matchup - #14 Villanova vs. #6 South Florida.

UND.com will have video coverage from today's practice later this afternoon, so stay tuned right here to Irish UNDerground.

- Josh Flynt ('11)

Abromaitis Makes It Three Straight

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While he awaits an NCAA decision on whether or not he will get a sixth year in South Bend, Notre Dame forward Tim Abromaitis adds another incredible accomplishment to his already stellar resume. On Tuesday evening, Abromaitis was named the American Eagle Outfitters BIG EAST Men's Basketball Scholar-Athlete of The Year for an unprecedented third-straight season.

Last season, Abromaitis joined Arturas Karnishovas of Seton Hall (1993-94) and Emeka Okafor of Connecticut (2003-04) as just the third two-time winner. Today, he becomes the only three-time recipient since the award was first given in 1985. In 2010, he became the second Notre Dame player to receive the honor, joining forward Pat Garrity who earned the recognition in 1998.

As head coach Mike Brey said in an interview with UND.com, "I'm so proud of Tim. This will never happen again...He truly is a student-athlete. He's the poster boy for student-athletes."

Unfortunately for the Irish, Abromaitis suffered a season-ending knee injury in late November, and only appeared in two games during the 2011-12 campaign. Last year, he averaged 15.4 points per game and helped guide the Irish to a 27-7 record and #2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

The Unionville, Ct. native completed his undergraduate degree in just three years, graduating in May 2010, before enrolling in the accelerated one-year MBA program. When it comes to his future with the Fighting Irish, Abromaitis's string of academic excellence may actually hurt his chances for a sixth year.

When the NCAA make its final ruling, they will probably be asking the same question many of us are wondering, "Tim, what else can you accomplish academically?" Of course, there's always the opportunity to start a Ph.D. or J.D. program.

Only time will tell if Abromaitis gets another year with the blue & gold, but regardless of what happens, he has been an excellent representative of the university and will be successful, whether or not he continues playing basketball at the collegiate or professional level.

- Josh Flynt ('11)

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Event Calendar

November 15
1:00 PM
Bucknell
Notre Dame, Ind. (Purcell Pavilion)

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November 15
1:00 PM
Syracuse Final
Notre Dame, Ind. (Alumni Stadium)

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November 15
1:00 PM
Miami
Coral Gables, Fla.

ESPN3
Live Stats
November 15
All Day
Bulldog Scramble
Athens, Georgia (Dan Magill Tennis Center)
November 15
All Day
USTA/ITA National Indoor Championships
Flushing, N.Y. (USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center)
November 17
7:00 PM
Milwaukee
Notre Dame, Ind. (Purcell Pavilion)

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November 18
7:00 PM
Toledo
Notre Dame, Ind. (Purcell Pavilion)

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November 19
TBA
NCAA First Round
Campus Sites
November 20
TBA
vs. TBD
Campus sites

Interactive Bracket
November 20
7:00 PM
Georgia Tech
Notre Dame, Ind. (Purcell Pavilion)
November 20
7:15 PM
UMass-Lowell
Lowell, Mass. (Tsongas Center)

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November 20
All Day
Boilermaker Invitational
West Lafayette, Ind. (Boilermaker Aquatic Center)
November 20
All Day
Boilermaker Invitational
West Lafayette, Ind. (Boilermaker Aquatic Center)
November 21
7:30 PM
Boston College
Boston, Mass.(Fenway Park)

NBCSN
Game Week Central
Uniform Gallery Photos
Shamrock Series Merchandise
November 21
2:00 PM
UMass-Lowell
Notre Dame, Ind. (Purcell Pavilion)

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November 21
3:00 PM
South Dakota State
Brookings, S.D. (Frost Arena)

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November 21
12:00 PM
NCAA Championship
Louisville, Ky. (EP Tom Sawyer State Park)
November 21
7:05 PM
UMass-Lowell
Lowell, Mass. (Tsongas Center)

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November 21
All Day
Boilermaker Invitational
West Lafayette, Ind. (Boilermaker Aquatic Center)
November 21
All Day
Boilermaker Invitational
West Lafayette, Ind. (Boilermaker Aquatic Center)
November 22
TBA
NCAA Second Round
Campus Sites
November 22
TBA
NCAA Third Round
Campus Sites

Interactive Bracket
November 22
1:00 PM
Clemson
Notre Dame, Ind. (Purcell Pavilion)
November 22
All Day
Boilermaker Invitational
West Lafayette, Ind. (Boilermaker Aquatic Center)
November 22
All Day
Boilermaker Invitational
West Lafayette, Ind. (Boilermaker Aquatic Center)
November 23
8:00 PM
Valparaiso
Valpraraiso, Ind. (Athletics-Recreation Center)

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