By Brian Hamilton, Chicago Tribune reporter
12:05 AM CDT, March 15, 2013
NEW YORK — Notre Dame looked bad Thursday night. Also, the team's retina-scorching green uniforms were a bit fashion-challenged. But the central issue was the disjointed and apathetic players wearing them and yet another flume of disaster they unleashed upon themselves from the start.
So it was after disgustedly calling a timeout as chaos swirled that Mike Brey attempted to solve the mystery, if not the lethargy. The Irish coach asked his team one question, as Marquette threatened to blast off again and rocket away with a victory: Are you scared?
"We took that personally," Irish guard Jerian Grant said. "The guys came out and said either you play now or go home. And we weren't ready to go home."
Abrupt goodbyes indeed were a byproduct of the last Big East tournament before the breakup, and a staggering 73-65 Notre Dame victory will last for as long as it takes the two programs to schedule a 119th meeting in the coming years after the Irish part ways.
The Irish (25-8) were miserable early at Madison Square Garden, quickly falling behind by 13 and precipitating Brey's challenge. What followed was 30 minutes of methodical, mostly efficient play on both ends, featuring multiple clutch plays from multiple hands to precipitate a fourth straight semifinal appearance in this event.
There, sixth-seeded Notre Dame will find second-seeded Louisville. The Irish and Cardinals with a late Friday tipoff at the Big East tournament: Really, what could happen?
"I was talking to our staff at breakfast (Thursday) morning: Look at the matchups today," Brey said. "They blow away any other league. And then certainly (Friday) night, I told our guys, coming out on Friday for the semifinal game, it's electric. I know it's the last time, and we're trying to get our money's worth out of this thing."
Getting the most out of it would mean getting where they never have gone before: The Big East tournament final.
"I'm tired of having to sit, go home and have to watch it on TV," Irish center Jack Cooley said. "I'm tired of that. The way this team fought back tonight and the way we handled it like men, I don't think we're going to let that happen. I think we're going to come out strong and handle their pressure phenomenally. I think we can get to Saturday night and that would mean a lot for me."
Pat Connaughton hit another six 3-pointers to lead the Irish with 18 points, Grant added 17 and Garrick Sherman chipped in 16. But it was tough to imagine Saturday when the Irish looked like they were barely going to emerge from Thursday with their pride intact.
The Irish missed 15 of their first 17 shots, including 11 in a row. Marquette (23-8) had its way, shooting 8 of 13 out of the gate. The Golden Eagles led 17-4 after not even 10 minutes, and even had five turnovers along the way.
So it could have been worse, before it got precipitously better. The Irish went for the degree of difficulty, apparently, because they rattled off a 17-5 run to follow the cold open. Connaughton infused some advice into the proceedings, reminding his team of their mammoth comeback at Pittsburgh, then infused some life into the offense with two 3-pointers.
Notre Dame finally piled up some defensive stops as Marquette got sloppy with the ball, and a Sherman hook shot produced an honest-to-goodness Irish lead for the first time with 2 minutes, 48 seconds left in the first half.
"We knew we had to answer," Sherman said. "It couldn't get any worse. It was either respond or get embarrassed. So we responded."
The Irish led by four at the break but the Eagles responded with some vigor in the second half, taking advantage of the Irish slumping defensively to score on six of seven trips in one stretch for a four-point lead. Six straight Notre Dame points erased that, and on the tug-of-war went.
Then Cooley finally made his presence felt. Struggling all game with fouls and a lack of offensive presence, the All-Big East center collected a steal on one end and an offensive rebound on the other, which he kicked out to Connaughton for yet another 3-pointer, this one creating a 59-52 lead with 3:23 left.
"I really don't like Marquette. I just don't," Cooley said. "I really don't like them. I wanted to make sure that we won this game. I wanted to seal it. And what really upset me was there was a play where I should have got (a rebound), but (Chris) Otule sat on my head. And that just pissed me off. I had to play angry and that just helped me play a lot better."
An Eric Atkins three-point play made it an eight-point edge about a half-minute later, a Connaughton 3-pointer answered a Marquette 3-pointer after that, and the Irish iced it from the free throw line after that.
And on to Louisville it was, with Big East stalwarts Georgetown and Syracuse starting the night with their last meeting for the foreseeable future, and the teams that went to six overtimes in February ending the evening who knows when.
"It's gonna be crazy," Atkins said. "It's gonna be electric out there."
Or, as Brey aptly put it: "Here we go again."
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC