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Following Flynt - Good Weekend to Be Irish

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With the winter sports wrapping up and the spring seasons getting underway, it was a good weekend for the Notre Dame athletic department, as several programs picked up big wins and two captured BIG EAST championships. Here's a quick look at some of this weekend's top performances:

Baseball opened the season in Florida, winning its first two games in the Big Ten/BIG EAST Challenge. On Friday, the Irish won a 13-12 slugfest against Illinois, led by junior catcher Joe Hudson's 3-for-4, two home run, four RBI afternoon. Saturday was a different story, as junior Adam Norton went the distance on the mound. The righty held Iowa to just two runs over nine innings to register his first complete game victory.

The ninth-ranked men's lacrosse team kicked off Saturday afternoon with a 7-3 upset of #2 Duke. After falling behind 2-0, head coach Kevin Corrigan's squad scored seven straight goals to win its tenth straight season-opener. Senior midfielder Max Pfeifer and sophomore midfielder Jim Marlatt led the Fighting Irish with two goals apiece.

In the pool, the men's swimming & diving team earned its fifth BIG EAST title. The Irish totaled 887 points, topping two-time defending champion Louisville (859.5) and host school Pittsburgh (520). Junior Bill Bass was named the meet's Most Outstanding Swimmer, and head coach Tim Welsh was named Swimming Coach of the Year. Last week, freshman Nick Nemetz was named Diver of the Year and Caiming Xie was selected as Diving Coach of the Year, so Saturday's awards gave Notre Dame a sweep of the conference postseason trophies.

At about 10 pm ET on Saturday, it looked like the men's basketball team's seven-game winning streak was destined to end in Philadelphia. Head coach Mike Brey's Fighting Irish trailed Villanova by 16 points at halftime, but the Irish rallied, thanks in part to Pat Connaughton's big night behind the arc. The freshman knocked down seven three-pointers, leading the improbable comeback and 74-70 overtime win to keep the winning streak alive.

The women's lacrosse team kicked off a new era on Sunday afternoon with a 17-14 victory over Stanford. Sophomore Lindsay Powell netted five goals, while junior Jaimie Morrison chipped in four and senior tri-captain Maggie Tamasitis tallied six assists, to lift new head coach Christine Halfpenny to a win in her first game with the Irish.

In the Big Apple, the men's track & field team hoisted its fifth BIG EAST Championship trophy, totaling 131 points at New Balance Track & Field Center at The Armory, to hold off second-place Connecticut (103 points). The Irish were led by Kevin Schipper's third consecutive BIG EAST Indoor pole vault title, and Patrick Feeney (400m) and Jeremy Rae's (Mile) victories on the track.

The fourth-ranked women's basketball team will look to finish off a strong weekend for the Notre Dame athletic program at 2 pm ET this afternoon on ESPN against #16 Louisville.

- Josh Flynt ('11)

Irish Believing Their Way to Victory

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ESPN.com - After his team beat Syracuse, handing the Orange their first loss of the season, Mike Brey challenged his players to believe in the unbelievable - that Notre Dame, a team without its best scorer and relying on a freshman and sophomore in the backcourt, wasn't just a fluke; that the Irish were something special.

And those crazy kids bought it.

They looked around the room, at a ragtag group that counted just two guys with any significant experience; that in November lost by 20 to Gonzaga and in December by 7 to Maryland, and they gobbled the bait like greedy guppies.

Sometimes seeing is not believing.

Sometimes you believe and then you see.

The Irish have risen from their early wake to storm to a second-place spot in the Big East, using that Syracuse victory as a catapult to what is now an eight-game win streak after Notre Dame rallied to beat Villanova, 74-70 in overtime.

Notre Dame was picked to finish ninth in the league. And that was before Tim Abromaitis blew out his knee. Yet with the Big East tournament a little more than two weeks away, the Irish are sitting extremely pretty at 11-3, tied with Marquette but owning the tiebreaker after a 76-59 spanking of the Golden Eagles on Feb. 4.

"We do believe we're special, we really do,'' said Pat Connaughton, a freshman who throws 94-mph fastballs for the Irish baseball team and drained seven 3-pointers for the hoops squad against Villanova.

And in this particular Big East season, a little self-confidence can go a long way. On Saturday, the Irish needed to come from a 16-point halftime deficit and a first-half hole that once ballooned as large as 20 to beat a team that has won just four league games this season and was down two starters.

Earlier in the day, Louisville, which took Syracuse to the brink on Monday and is 7-1 in its past eight games, needed overtime to dispatch DePaul, a team that has won just twice in 2012.

Toss aside Syracuse at the top and the difference between 2 and 16 is as thin and flimsy as a Jay Wright pocket square.

Connecticut last season became the first team to win five games in five nights to capture the league tournament.

Who'd take the odds that lightning couldn't strike again this year?

"Confidence is the difference-maker in this league,'' Brey said. "It's razor-thin stuff.''

No one would call Notre Dame a great team. The Irish's margin of victory is a flimsy 4.6 points. They don't rebound particularly well. Their players are not more talented than Villanova's. If anything, the Wildcats hold the advantage in beefy player resumes.

Yet there was Notre Dame, down 20, getting smoked on the boards, shooting terribly and looking like it was up 20. No hung heads, no grimaces or pouting.

Maybe, in part, at least, is because the Irish figure they've been playing with house money all season. Abromaitis was supposed to be the guy. The senior averaged 15.4 points a year ago and would, with Jack Cooley, give Notre Dame a formidable inside-outside presence.

When he was injured, there wasn't so much dejection as there was rampant confusion.

"We practiced with him all summer and all fall,'' Connaughton said. "And then when we had to play without him, we were like, 'Oh, am I supposed to shoot this?''

Brey had been through it before, forced to regroup after losing Luke Harangody two years ago, which helped him at least to keep his head on straight.

His players relied on him, but more they relied on each other. These guys genuinely like one another, Connaughton said, and that comfort helped fuel a trust on the court.

It was evident against the Wildcats. While the inexperienced Cats were blowing their lead, jacking up bad shots and making few of them - Villanova made all of just four field goals in the second half before Maurice Sutton somehow tipped in a fifth at the regulation buzzer to force overtime - the Irish were passing and searching, giving up one OK look for a better one. They used a late 13-4 run to send the game into overtime.

And then, with the Irish up 68-65 in the final minute of overtime, Scott Martin found Connaughton, who sunk his seventh from beyond the arc to cement the victory.

Notre Dame made 25 field goals in the game.

The Irish dished out assists on 17 of them.

"It's not just the margin for error that's so small; it's the margin for success,'' Wright said. "If you look at their numbers, they're not that impressive, but what is impressive is how they execute. They know their roles extremely well and they know who they are and who makes the plays. They believe in what they're doing.''

And these days believing is carrying the day.

"Jeremy Lin and the Irish,'' Brey laughed. "Believe it."

- Dana O'Neil

Cool In the Clutch

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For some reason against Rutgers, the student section in the Joyce Center didn't have the same electricity and fire it usually does. I don't think we deserve a ton of credit by any means, but I do think the student body is part of the reason why the Irish are so hard to take down at home.

Notre Dame has just one loss at home this season, and it came when students were home over winter break. The Leprechaun Legion has typically been at Notre Dame home games in big numbers and with frenetic passion that gets the JACC rocking.

Tonight, for some reason, we seemed subdued. Maybe it was the odd timing of the game - Wednesday games typically get a lot fewer students than weekend contests. Maybe it was just a rough part of the semester; I know a lot of people have tests and papers due right now. But the student section was definitely smaller than usual, and quieter too.

It didn't help that the Irish started off cold offensively. It took the team nearly six minutes to make their first field goal. By that point, the crowd seemed to be on its last legs. It's not that the Irish were playing poorly - in fact, the team was winning at that point, 8-3. But it was hard for the students to get invested in the game, to put the same emotion into the normal cheers that normally get everyone fired up.

Well, there one big exception Wednesday night. Every time one Irish player made a big play - and it happened pretty often - the student section regained some of that passion and intensity, and screamed at the top of its lungs,

"Coooooool!"

Junior forward Jack Cooley was able to bring some life to an Irish crowd that desperately needed a spark, and played a determined game that was the story of Wednesday's game.

Cooley got knocked down and took some big hits, drawing plenty of fouls from a tough Rutgers team. But he refused to stay down and delivered one of his biggest games yet. His 22 points and 18 rebounds led the Irish on a night of gritty, hard-nosed basketball.

His passion was evident from the opening tip. When he made big plays, it was impossible not to feed off of his energy. Cooley played with intensity and showed a lot of desire, all night long.

The student section came alive for Cooley's big moments, and he fueled the Irish runs that made a close game into a rout. The game ended in a 71-53 win for Notre Dame, and extended the Irish's winning streak to seven games. It was the kind of solid, gritty win which defines quality teams.

Despite a subpar effort from the student section - c'mon guys, we can do better than that - the Irish played a great game and came away with a win. And a lot of the credit goes to their stud big man, who is incredibly, definitively, and undeniably, cool.

- Tom McGuire ('14)

Top 10 Thursday: Leaders

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In this week's "Top 10 Thursday," ESPN.com's Myron Medcalf counts down the best leaders in men's college basketball.

Medcalf lists Notre Dame senior forward Scott Martin third, behind Michigan State's Draymond Green and Butler's Ronald Nored.

"These are the 'locker room guys.' Some of them fill up the stat sheets. Others don't. But if you're a coach, you want these guys on your roster because of their undeniable leadership skills," Medcalf writes.

Here's the snippet on Martin, who has helped guide the Fighting Irish to seven straight wins and a 10-3 record in the BIG EAST Conference:

3. Scott Martin (Notre Dame) -- The Fighting Irish had every reason to make excuses. In November, the program lost its best player when Tim Abromaitis tore his ACL and was lost for the season. But as the team's co-captain and only other senior, Martin stepped up to lead Notre Dame to a surprising stretch of success. The Fighting Irish are nationally ranked, despite losing five out of eight games from Nov. 21 to Dec. 17. Martin leads a balanced Notre Dame team that's managed to climb the Big East standings with a feisty defense and an absence of egos. This crew could have fallen apart once it lost Abromaitis. But Martin has helped Mike Brey put the Fighting Irish in a position to make a lot of noise in March.

For Medcalf's complete list, click here.

Following Flynt - Seven Straight

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It was a slow start with some ugly first half statistics, but Notre Dame turned things around after the break, getting another huge performance from junior forward Jack Cooley to secure a seventh consecutive victory. Tonight's 71-53 win over Rutgers improves the Irish to 18-8 overall and 10-3 in the BIG EAST Conference.

Notre Dame clinged to a 33-28 halftime lead, thanks only to 6-for-13 shooting beyond the arc and 11-for-14 from the charity stripe.

The Irish shot just 8-for-27 from the floor in the first half, and prior to Eric Atkins' layup with 11:57 left in the game, Jack Cooley and Jerian Grant were the only Notre Dame players who had made a field goal from inside the arc.

Rutgers committed 26 team fouls, sending Notre Dame to the line for 32 free throws, where the Irish converted 75% of those shots - certainly a contributing factor to tonight's big win.

Cooley followed up his BIG EAST Player of the Week performance with another monster evening. He scored 22 points and pulled down 18 boards for his third straight double-double and his ninth of the season. Jerian Grant (11 points), Pat Connaughton (10) and Eric Atkins (10) also finished in double digits.

Not only does the seventh straight victory help Notre Dame keep pace with Marquette for second place in the conference, but it avenges the team's most recent loss - a 65-58 defeat at the hands of the Scarlet Knights in Piscataway, N.J. on Jan. 16.

Since that loss, Notre Dame has defeated #1 Syracuse and won key road games at Seton Hall, Connecticut and West Virginia, while also beating #15 Marquette, DePaul and of course, Rutgers here tonight at the Purcell Pavilion.

When fifth-year guard Tim Abromaitis was lost to a season-ending knee injury on Black Friday, it looked like a black eye and major setback for Notre Dame's season. Many thought head coach Mike Brey's team would struggle to make the NIT, let alone the Big Dance.

Two months ago, no one in America thought the Irish would be ranked in mid-February. Now, however, Notre Dame is poised to be watching on Selection Sunday and this team has the confidence to play with anyone in the country - and with four regular season games remaining, there is perhaps no better attitude a team can have.

Stay tuned to UND.com for tonight's highlights and post-game press conference.

Let's hope this improbable run continues on Saturday in Philadelphia. The Irish will meet Villanova at 9 pm ET on ESPNU, before returning home next Wednesday, Feb. 22 for another game with West Virginia.

In my years of watching Notre Dame basketball, Coach Brey has had some better squads, but none have been as enjoyable to watch and as fun to root for as this 2011-12 team.

- Josh Flynt ('11)

Live Chat - Men's Basketball vs. Rutgers

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Notre Dame continues BIG EAST Conference action this evening at Purcell Pavilion when it takes on Rutgers at 7:00 p.m. (ET).

The game will be broadcast on ESPNU, 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.

Hear It From a Student - Our House

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I've been a Notre Dame student for two years now. In those two years, I have been to a lot of basketball games, and seen an incredible variety of events. I've seen blowouts and crazy endings. I've seen the team cruise to victory in preseason wins, and I stormed the court after a win over the number one team in the country. I've seen dunks, blocks, and a seemingly unending stream of threes.

You know what I have yet to see in person? A loss.

The Irish have only lost one game when playing in the Joyce Center in the past two years, and that loss (a 53-67 loss to Connecticut in January) came over winter break, when the student body was on vacation. When they've been playing with the Leprechaun Legion behind them, the Irish have been invincible.

There are moments when the team makes a strong sequence of plays that the Joyce Center erupts. Even though a game may be tight until the end, we've almost come to expect the Irish to suddenly make some clutch shots and take the momentum. When that happens, the atmosphere in South Bend becomes electric.

The team's last game against DePaul was a perfect example. The game was tied at 68-68 with just over six and a half minutes left in the second half. After a foul on DePaul's Donovan Kirk, the Demons' bench drew a technical foul. The Irish fans, who had been getting frustrated with the officiating, came to life with a call that went their way. Jerian Grant knocked down the two free throws, and Jack Cooley quickly followed with a layup. When Alex Dragicevich hit a three to give the Irish a seven point lead, the place went nuts. The players were pumped. The fans were screaming at the top of their lungs. And after that point, DePaul never got within more than three points.

Moments like that - when the team and the fans come together as one - are one of the things I love most about sports. The adrenaline rush is something that is hard to beat. And the whole student body (well, all of us who managed to wake up early enough for a noon game) shared in that electric feeling at once. Moments like that are pretty special, and Notre Dame basketball seems to be having them a lot lately.

With the 84-76 win, the Irish moved to 17-8 and 9-3 in Big East play. They keep on defying the odds and giving their fans an incredible season to watch. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have seen such a phenomenal effort this year.

And despite a tough performance from a resilient DePaul team, I have still only seen Irish wins at the Joyce Center. It's great to be an Irish fan.

- Tom McGuire ('14)

Journeys With Jack

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UND.com's Jack Nolan takes Irish fans inside the men's basketball program ...

Hard to believe that just under a month ago the men's basketball team walked off the floor at the RAC in New Jersey with a 3-3 Big East record after losing a 65-58 decision to Rutgers. The future did not look very bright for the Irish with top-ranked Syracuse coming to town. Mike Brey decided to go all-in, telling his team that the Syracuse game was not just a big conference game, but it could turn out to be the greatest moment in his players' sporting careers.

Brey's players did what was necessary to make their coach's statement come true, and they have continued to get better every game since their upset of the nation's top-ranked team. Since my first blog posted last week the Irish have recorded two more wins to run their Big East winning streak to six games, the longest active winning streak in the conference.

During their six-game winning streak, this Irish have gone from thinking they could win every game, to knowing they could win every game, to expecting to win every game.

It is never easy to win a game at WVU Coliseum in Morgantown. Last Wednesday, the underdog Irish had led for most of the game when West Virginia went on a 13-2 run to take a 43-40 lead with 4:38 left, the first lead change of the second half. The West Virginia crowd was going nuts and the Mountaineers were clearly energized when Brey called a necessary timeout. Most of the time in a situation like this against an underdog at home, the home team proceeds to take control of the game on the way to recording a hard fought win.

But when the Irish broke their huddle, from my broadcasting vantage point - next to the visitor's bench - I did not see any concern, any fear, any stress in the eyes of the players ... just a calm confidence that they would come back and win the game. This is, of course, the message and poise that Brey tries to instill in his players during timeouts in situations like these, and I think Brey would be the first to agree that his team already had this demeanor when it came off the floor at the beginning of the timeout.

Moments later, Eric Atkins hit a three to tie the game. Jerian Grant then came up with a steal and hit a ridiculously deep three, and, after a Jack Cooley rebound, Scott Martin knocked down another three to give the Irish a six-point lead with 58 seconds left. Oh, and before these three straight three-point bombs, the Irish were just 2-for-18 from three-point land on the night.

This Irish team again found a way to make the big plays and a way to find the range to make the big shots for another big upset win on the road.

Saturday's game with DePaul marked the first time Notre Dame had been a heavy favorite in a Big East game all season. The Blue Demons had only won two conference games this year (one a road win at Rutgers) so your typical Notre Dame fan was expecting a blowout win for the now red-hot Irish.

This was new territory for the young Notre Dame team: dealing with being the hunted rather than the hunter, dealing with the pressure of being expected to win a conference game against a team that could temper the taste of a sour season with a win against a longtime traditional rival.

It may be hard to believe, but bad basketball teams can be made up of good players. DePaul is loaded with extremely talented young players who have not yet learned how to play well together for 40 minutes, but they are getting there. This year's DePaul team got off to a 9-3 start, its best since the 1999-2000 season, and played well against the Irish.

The game was close, with DePaul grabbing a seven-point lead midway through the first half. The Irish did come back to retake the lead late in the first half before the half ended tied at 34-34. Knowing DePaul was just 2-9 in Big East play coming in, Irish fans grumbled a bit throughout the first half and as the teams headed to the lockeroom at halftime.

Things got more tense in the second half when DePaul went on a 9-0 run to take a one-point lead at the 8:39 mark. Yes, the Blue Demons' trap was baited for the Irish in this classic trap game, but the Irish would not take the bait. Led by Jack Cooley (career-high tying 22 points) and Jerian Grant (career high 22 points) down the stretch, the Irish broke a 68-68 tie with a 7-0 run of their own (including a huge three from Alex Dragicevich) and went on to win again 84-76, a very good win for any team in this situation in a Big East game.

One of the great things about this Notre Dame run is the fact that not just one or two players are leading the Irish to victory each night. Instead, a different player or two steps up his or their games each night to make the difference in the always tough Big East.

That said, this past week, Jack Cooley led the way with two monster efforts. Against West Virginia and DePaul, Cooley made 81 percent of his shots while averaging 21.5 points and 13 rebounds. He also blocked five shots and did not turn the ball over one while recording his seventh and eighth double-doubles of his career, all coming this season. Congratulations to Jack Cooley on winning the Big East Player of the Week award for the first time!

This is the fourth straight week a Notre Dame player has been honored by the Big East, so folks are starting to notice this Irish team, as are the media members and coaches who vote in the two weekly polls. Notre Dame is ranked 23rd in the AP Poll this week and 25th in the Coaches Poll, deserved rankings indeed.

Rutgers comes town Wednesday night, with a young athletic lineup that has the distinction of handing Notre Dame its last loss. They will not be intimidated by an Irish team on a six-game winning streak, and they will pack the same quickness that bothered the Irish on Jan. 16 in Piscataway.

But I also know that unlike that night in New Jersey, Brey's Fighting Irish expect to win Wednesday night. And they expect a little help from the Irish faithful in Purcell Pavilion, who have now rooted on the Irish to 32 wins in their last 33 home games.

Go Irish!

- Jack Nolan (@NDjackNolan)

Daily Dish - 2.14.12

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Junior men's basketball forward Jack Cooley (Glenview, Ill.) has been named the BIG EAST Player of the Week after registering back-to-back double-doubles for Notre Dame in wins last week against West Virginia and DePaul. He averaged 21.5 points and 13.0 rebounds to earn his first career player-of-the-week honor. Cooley, who is averaging 11.5 points and 8.8 rebounds this season, had previously been named to the BIG EAST Weekly Honor Roll on four occasions ... In Notre Dame's 55-51 win over the Mountaineers in Morgantown, Cooley played 33 minutes and scored 21 points and grabbed 12 rebounds ... Against the Blue Demons, he matched his career best with 22 points and also grabbed 14 rebounds ... In addition, he equaled his career high with four blocked shots ... He leads the Irish with eight double-doubles that includes six in BIG EAST play.

Jay Bilas' "Bilas Index" this week on ESPN.com has Notre Dame rated 45th nationally. The Irish men's team made the polls this week for the first time this season--23rd by AP and 25th by ESPN/USA Today. CBSSports.com's Top 25 (and one) poll had the Irish rated 18th this week. SI.com's Seth Davis lists the Irish 21st this week. Meanwhile, ESPN.com's Bracketology this week projects Notre Dame as a #7 NCAA seed playing #10 Purdue in Greensboro. Another projected bracket on CBSSports.com by Jerry Palm (before the DePaul game) had the Irish at a #8 NCAA seed playing #9 Illinois in Louisville.

The Notre Dame Bengal Bouts--the University's 82nd club boxing event--continues with quarterfinals Feb. 22 (6 p.m.), semifinals Feb. 28 (6 p.m.) and finals March 3 (7 p.m.). All proceeds benefit the Holy Cross Missions of Bangladesh.

The Notre Dame men's golf team advanced into the semifinals at The Match Play, earning wins over Loyola Chicago and Villanova Monday at the Reunion Resort Watson Course in Orlando, Fla. The Irish took down the Ramblers 5.5-0.5 in the opening roundbefore defeating the Wildcats 4.0-2.0 in quarterfinal action. Seniors Chris Walker (The Woodlands, Texas) and Tom Usher (Baildon, England) as well as sophomore Niall Platt (Santa Barbara, Calif.) and freshman Tyler Wingo (Fairfax, Va.) paced the Irish through their opening two matches, winning each of their respective contests to notch the maximum two points on the day...

Following Flynt - Six In A Row

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It took the crowd (and the team) a little while to get going this afternoon at Purcell Pavilion, but the Notre Dame men's basketball team won its sixth straight game, a 84-76 victory over the DePaul Blue Demons.

After a 34-34 halftime tie, the Irish outscored DePaul 50-42 in the second half to improve to 9-3 in the BIG EAST and 17-8 overall. A team once left for dead, at this point it is probably safe to say Notre Dame controls its own postseason destiny. With six games to play, the Irish are tied with Marquette for second place in the conference, behind #2 Syracuse.

Jack Cooley and Jerian Grant led the Fighting Irish with 22 points apiece. Cooley also grabbed 14 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the season. He blocked four shots and drew a key offensive foul in the closing minutes.

Eric Atkins also finished in double figures for Notre Dame, tallying 14 points.

The Irish have not lost since Jan. 16 in Piscataway, N.J. against Rutgers. Interestingly enough, they will look for a seventh straight win on Wednesday against, who else? The Scarlet Knights.

The game begins at 7 pm ET and will be broadcast on ESPNU. Follow the live blog right here on Irish UNDerground and stay tuned to UND.com for highlights from today's contest and post-game presser.

- Josh Flynt ('11)

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