Notre Dame is headed to the Big East Championship semifinals for the fourth consecutive year after a 73-65 victory Thursday over 12th-ranked Marquette. Nine minutes into the quarterfinal bout at New York’s Madison Square Garden, the Fighting Irish appeared to be headed straight to either JFK or LaGuardia.
Rallying from a 17-4 deficit midway through the opening stanza, head coach Mike Brey’s sixth-seeded team flipped a switch on both ends of the court and continued to ride sophomore Pat Connaughton’s sizzling streak from three-point land for the upset over the third-seeded Golden Eagles (23-8).
In a rematch of last year’s semis, Notre Dame faces No. 2 seed Louisville Friday. It’s the third time in as many years the two teams have clashed in the Garden with a title berth on the line. The Cardinals bested the Irish 83-77 in overtime two years ago, and ran away with a 64-50 win last season.
No. 1 seed Georgetown takes on fifth-seeded Syracuse in the first game Friday.
The Irish (25-8) outscored Marquette 25-8 to close out the first half and take a 29-25 advantage into the locker room. During that stretch, Connaughton, who finished with a game-high 18 points, knocked down a pair of treys after missing his first two attempts from long range. Reserve Garrick Sherman’s three baskets in the paint and senior forward Tom Knight’s 3-of-4 effort from the field (eight first-half points) helped Notre Dame turn the table before the break.
The only other Big East team play in four straight league tournament semifinals is the Syracuse outfit from 1986-89 (five straight). In the process of moving on, Notre Dame’s senior class improved to 97-39 overall and 49-24 in conference play — the most wins in both categories for a class in school history. The 2007-11 group went 96-42 overall and 46-26 in the league.
"I'm really proud of our group," Brey said. "I thought we were men the whole night. The game didn't start really well for us, but we fought back. Two good teams going at it. They made another run, and we fought out of it. We made such big plays at key times, and everybody had a hand in it."
Connaughton remained hot in the second half and he finished 6 of 10 from behind the arc, matching his six triples (co-season high) from Wednesday’s victory over Rutgers. Sixth-year senior Scott Martin, who was lost for the year to a knee injury on Jan. 21, knocked down six three-pointers against Seton Hall on Jan. 5.
In a contest resembling Notre Dame’s trip to Pittsburgh a month ago, when the Irish rallied for a 51-42 victory after trailing 19-3 with seven minutes to play in the first half, the squad got their hands on some smelling salts and made an abrupt turnaround. And with first-team All-Big East selection Jack Cooley, a senior forward who has served as the team’s engine the last two seasons, in a funk for the second night in a row, Sherman stepped up in a big way. The senior center was 6 of 12 from the field for 16 points and added six rebounds and two blocks in an excellent defensive outing.
"There was no panic," Brey said. "There really wasn't any panic. As a matter of fact, in the huddles when it was 17-4, Connaughton kept saying, 'It's just like the Pitt game.' So I'm really proud of our group.
"... Garrick Sherman was fabulous. I think we found another weapon here in March. Tom Knight, Zach [Auguste] ... maybe it wasn't as much a night for Zach, but you know what, tomorrow night could be. It's a great luxury to have all four of those [big] guys."
Added Sherman: "Whatever it is, we're just trying to make sure we're on the floor doing our job. We're always ready to go. Everyone has their role, and tonight is one of the nights I had to step up."
Cooley, after registering one bucket versus Rutgers, scored six points Thursday before fouling out with 1:26 to play and his team leading 65-58. Junior guard Jerian Grant struggled from the field (4 of 15), but netted a three-pointer and drained 8 of 9 free throw attempts for 16 points. The Irish, after shooting 36.7 percent from the floor in the first half, finished the late night at 40.0 percent (24 of 60).
"Jack Cooley, I'm really proud of him because it wasn't a real good night, but he kept trying, and he kept plugging, and he made some big, big plays for us," Brey said.
Marquette quickly regained the advantage with a 7-0 run to start the second half. Nearly 11 minutes went by before either team opened up more than a possession cushion. Connaughton put Notre Dame back on top twice, and his final triple gave the neon-green-clad bunch a 65-57 lead with 2:24 to go.
Forward Jamil Wilson notched 16 points and Junior Cadougan, who pushed Marquette out front early on, added 14 points. Vander Blue contributed 12 points for the Golden Eagles, who outrebounded Notre Dame 32-27 and shot 46.6 percent for the game.
One of only five Big East teams to have never reached the finals (Rutgers, DePaul, South Florida and Marquette are the others), Notre Dame looks to beat Louisville for the second time in three tries this year. The Irish came away with an unfathomable win at home in five overtimes on Feb. 9, and were trounced in the regular-season finale in Kentucky by 16 points.
It’s the last year of the Big East in its current form, as the name and tournament site will soon belong to the seven Catholic institutions scheduled to break away on July 1. Three of the four teams to reach this year’s semifinals are set to join the Atlantic Coast Conference (Notre Dame and Syracuse next year, and Louisville in 2014).