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Sunday, June 16, 2024
The Observer

Men's Basketball: Late-season surge propels ND to NCAA berth

With its season on the brink and its best player on the bench, Notre Dame responded by winning its final four regular-season conference games and two Big East tournament games to secure a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

All-American senior forward Luke Harangody went down midway through the second half of Notre Dame's Feb. 11 loss at Seton Hall, which dropped the Irish to 6-6 in the Big East with eight games to play. Notre Dame then lost its next two games to St. John's and Louisville by a combined three points without Harangody. The 91-89 double-overtime loss at Louisville on Feb. 17 represented a turning point, however, as senior guards Tory Jackson and Ben Hansbrough and junior forward Tim Abromaitis stepped up to lead the Irish to a near-upset in one of the conference's toughest places to play.

A week later, Notre Dame's season changed for good.

Before the Irish hosted No. 12 Pittsburgh on Feb. 24, the still-sidelined Harangody was the first player inducted into the school's "Ring of Honor," as his No. 44 now hangs from the rafters. At the time, it looked like Harangody might have played his final game for the Irish, with NCAA Tournament hopes and a shot at a Big East tournament run looking dim.

But then the Irish introduced their new "slow burn" offense, which was a stark contrast to Irish coach Mike Brey's typical fast-paced scheme. The change of pace paid off against the Panthers, as Notre Dame turned a 35-27 halftime lead into a 52-30 advantage in the first six minutes of the second half. The Irish won the game 68-53 behind 10-for-18 shooting from 3-point range.

"I think just being patient on offense was a key for us," Abromaitis said after the game. "There were a lot of possessions that went down to single digits on the shot clock and we waited until we had the best look we could possibly get."

Three days later, the Irish went on the road to No. 11 Georgetown, where Notre Dame handed the Hoyas a 78-64 defeat to get back to .500 in the Big East. After a quiet first half, Hansbrough scored Notre Dame's first 10 points of the second half in a three-minute span to put the Irish up 41-30. The Irish built a 50-38 lead and saw it cut to 50-46 before 3-pointers by Jackson, junior forward Carleton Scott and Hansbrough built the advantage back up to 59-46, at which point Notre Dame pulled away.

In its next game, the home finale against Connecticut on March 3, Notre Dame overcame a pair of double-digit first-half deficits behind Jackson's 20 second-half points to beat the sliding Huskies, 58-50. The win ensured the Irish at least a .500 Big East record — a benchmark Brey often said would be good enough for an at-large NCAA berth.

But the Irish weren't done stating their case yet. They closed the regular season with a thrilling overtime win at Marquette on March 6 in Harangody's return. Scott hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to force overtime, Abromaitis had 18 points and Harangody played 11 minutes off the bench, scoring five points and grabbing two rebounds.

The four-game win streak propelled Notre Dame to the No. 7 seed in the Big East tournament, securing the Irish a first-round bye before playing No. 10-seed Seton Hall in a game dubbed by some as a play-in game for the NCAA Tournament. Harangody made an impact for the first time since his injury with 20 points and 10 rebounds off the bench in a 68-56 second-round victory.

"The last couple of days of practice have been great for me, just to get back in the flow. Kind of get my conditioning back up to where it has been," Harangody said. "I feel right now that I started to get a little bit of swagger I had before the injury, a little more of the confidence. I feel great with the guys out there."

The Irish won their sixth straight the next night by beating No. 2-seed Pittsburgh, the nation's No. 16 team, for the second time during the streak. Notre Dame's slowed-down offense was the difference in the 50-45 victory that sent the Irish to the semifinals of the tournament, against West Virginia.

Harangody and Jackson each had 12 points in the defensive struggle.

"Our interior defense and ball-screen defense has been the most consistent since I've been here," Brey said. "I guess when your life is on the line, you're really good at it."

No. 7 West Virginia, the tournament's No. 3-seed, ended Notre Dame's win streak and its hopes of reaching its first Big East tournament title game in a 53-51 Irish loss that was probably closer than it should have been. Jackson missed a 3 with four seconds to play after an 11-2 Irish run cut West Virginia's lead to 48-47 with 2:58 remaining.

Notre Dame learned its NCAA Tournament fate on March 14, surprising some by grabbing the No. 6 seed in the South Region. The Irish were assigned to play No. 11-seed Old Dominion in New Orleans. The Monarchs pulled the upset, 51-50, on March 18.

A pair of six-minute scoreless droughts in the second half doomed the Irish, who made only six of 26 3-point attempts, including two of 12 in the second half. Scott's game-tying 3-point attempt rimmed out in the final seconds as the Monarchs completed the first-round heartbreaker.

"It just sounds so simple, but we had some really clean looks. You've got to make some shots," Irish coach Mike Brey said. "We'd been a good shooting team. It's not like I'm saying something the percentages say we can't do or haven't done."

The Irish held a 28-22 lead at halftime, and after Scott scored the first points of the half to give Notre Dame a 30-22 lead, the Monarchs posted a 9-0 run over six minutes to take a 31-30 advantage. Scott broke Notre Dame's second six-minute drought with a 3 to tie the game, 46-46, with 1:49 remaining.

Hansbrough's 17 points led all scorers, and Scott scored 14 points and added 10 rebounds.

In his final collegiate game, Harangody was held to four points — both in the final 12 seconds.

"He got the two fouls and I thought he could never really get into a flow," Brey said of Harangody. "Also, when you're playing against zone for long periods of time, it's probably a little harder to establish him, you know, offensively."

Despite the disappointing finish, the Irish senior class of Harangody, Jackson and Jonathan Peoples leave as the winningest class in school history, with a 93-43 record, including a 43-27 mark in the Big East.

Harangody became a three-time All-American — Notre Dame's first since Kevin O'Shea in 1948-1950 — after being named a consensus second-team All-American for the second time in his career. He was the first Irish player to score 2,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds, and his 2,476 career points and 1,222 career rebounds both rank second in the Notre Dame history books.

The Irish finished the season 23-12 and posted a 10-8 record during the Big East regular season.