Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Notre Dame struggled down stretch

Associated Press Writer

        SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A year ago Notre Dame sat in disbelief when it didn't receive an NCAA tournament bid.

        This year the Irish were so confident they were in they actually cheered when the West Regional bracket was posted and they weren't in it. Some of the players even high-fived after the Boise, Idaho, bracket was posted.

        “I don't want any part of Boise,” forward Troy Murphy joked afterward.

        Murphy was in a joking mood. A year ago he passed up the chance to be a likely NBA lottery pick for another chance at leading Notre Dame to its first NCAA tournament bid since the 1989-90 season. It paid off on Sunday when the selections were announced.

        “Definitely it was worth it, to be able to play in the NCAA tournament,” he said. “I definitely think I made the right decision coming back and playing.”

        The sixth-seeded Irish (19-9) will face No. 11 seed Xavier (21-7) in Kansas City on Friday.

        The Irish, watching the selection announcement on television at coach Mike Brey's home in Granger, erupted in cheers when the bracket with Notre Dame came up on the screen. Murphy, sitting next to the coach, leaned forward on the edge of the seat until Notre Dame's opponent was announced, when he leaned back and smiled.

        “It's just funny because we've played them and some of the guys, you're familiar with their games and things. It was just cool,” Murphy said. “It's better to play them rather than some team you've never heard of.”

        The celebration Sunday was a stark contrast to last season, when the Irish thought they deserved an NCAA berth but instead settled for the NIT. Getting into the NCAA tournament has been the team's focus ever since. Brey, hired in July after Matt Doherty was hired by North Carolina, said it's all he's heard about since arriving.

        “It's been a long time for the young men that have been at this institution, but also for Notre Dame fans around the world,” Brey said. “I'm very proud that this team earned sixth seed. I think that says that we really took care of our business from the beginning of the regular season until the end.”

        Making the NCAA tournament is not enough, though; the Irish need to win some games, Brey said.

        It's been a while. Notre Dame hasn't won an NCAA tournament game in 12 years. It's been 22 years since the Irish won two games in the tournament and 23 years since they won three or more, advancing to the Final Four that season.

        “I think we can diffuse the happy to be there quickly and start to focus on being successful,” Brey said.

        The Irish are struggling entering the tournament, losing four of their last six games. Since clinching the Big East West Division title with a 24-point win over Virginia Tech two weeks ago, the Irish have lost three straight. Worse yet, the Irish have been completely outworked in all three loses. Connecticut outrebounded the Irish by 15, Georgetown had 12 more and Pittsburgh had 14 more rebounds.

        The loss to Pittsburgh was by far the most disappointing. Not only did the Irish lose to a team it had beaten twice during the regular season, they played terribly. The Irish were held to a season-low for points (54), field goals (19), free throws made (4) and rebounds (25). Murphy had only eight points, his second fewest points ever.

        Brey said he doesn't want the Irish to dwell on their finish.

        “I think momentum going into the NCAA tournament is overrated. Their are teams that lose in the first round of their conference tournament, they get into the NCAA tournament and take off. There are teams that win their conference tournament championship and they get nailed in the first round.”

        Murphy said he plans to just enjoy it all.

        “This is a whole new season. Anything can happen now. We did finish the season kind of slow, but we'll be ready to turn it on. If we don't, things will be done for us pretty quickly,” he said.

Online pool and college hoops coverage at Cincinnati.com

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