Athletes or coaches who reminisce wistfully during the course of the season enter the danger zone. “If what you achieved yesterday sounds great, you haven’t achieved anything today,” is a popular battle cry in locker rooms throughout the country.
Sophomore point guard Eric Atkins and the Irish continue to keep their collective foot on the gas pedal during its record conference winning streak.
On Wednesday night, Notre Dame men’s basketball did accomplish something that it never had in its 17-year history in the Big East: a ninth straight conference victory. Briefly, 12th-year head coach Mike Brey allowed himself to get caught up in the moment.
“It’s really special for this group to do it,” Brey said. “It will be a great story in the history of our basketball program. They come back to reunions; it will be something they reminisce about. We certainly want to see if we can keep riding it past nine.”
And that is perhaps what has been most impressive about this team and its streak — the hunger to keep it alive. It has been bereft of complacency regarding, “Well, we’ve already done more than anybody projected.” Instead, the prevailing mantra is “greed is good,” with apologies to Gordon Gekko.
• The streak began with the 67-58 victory against No. 1 Syracuse on Jan. 21, and it remains the lone loss this season for the Orange. For the first time in 25 years, Notre Dame vanquished the top-ranked team.
• The perfect formula for a letdown — big win at home, hangover in the next game on the road — was going to occur four days later at Seton Hall, a surprise team in the league that was riding a 12-game home winning streak. Instead, even Brey was amazed by his team’s maturity while posting a 55-42 victory — the fewest points ever yielded by the Irish in a Big East contest.
• Okay, fun time is over. The Irish absolutely, positively will lose the next one, at defending national champ and No. 19 Connecticut. Notre Dame already had lost to UConn at home a couple of weeks earlier, Brey had never won at the XL Center, and the Irish were 2-10 all-time in the state. Voila! Irish 50, UConn 48.
• Fine, the maturity on the road was proven. Now it’s time to get back to reality and get waxed by No. 15 Marquette, the quickest team in the Big East. Surprise! Notre Dame ran the Golden Eagles right out of the gym with a 76-59 victory — the largest margin of victory by the Irish over Marquette in 10 years. Notre Dame can not only “burn,” but it can also sizzle when necessary.
• It’s been a fun ride, but it will end in Morgantown, W.V. The Irish have lost three in a row there — including 72-58 with last year’s all-senior starting team that won 26 regular season games, a modern day school record. Remarkably, the Irish prevail again, 55-51.
• Notre Dame has proven it likes the underdog role — but can it be “up” as the huge favorite at home against DePaul and Rutgers? That’s when you usually get burned, or at least the teams that don’t know how to handle success do. The Irish did finally come out sluggish against DePaul, but still prevailed (84-76), and then took care of business versus Rutgers (71-53), the last team to defeat it.
• Finally, the inevitable letdown was occurring at reeling Villanova. The Irish fell behind 39-19 in the first half and trailed by 16 at the intermission — yet rallied for a 74-70 overtime victory. It tied the largest comeback win in school history (also 20 down at Marquette on Jan. 21, 1992).
• A hungry West Virginia team that is fighting for an NCAA Tournament berth was supposed to exact its revenge last night at the Purcell Pavilion, but it was out-scored 41-16 in the second half in its 71-44 demolition.
Once and for all, the end of the line will be reached sometime within the next week. Notre Dame has the dreaded Saturday-Monday road swing at St. John’s (Saturday) and then at Georgetown (Monday).
Notre Dame has never swept one of those two-conference-games-on-the-road-in-three-days excursions. (It has won several home-home or home-away games like that. In 2002, it won back-to-back road games against West Virginia and Pitt in a span of four days, not three. And in December 2002, it defeated top 10 non-conference foes Maryland and Texas on consecutive days on a neutral site.)
Furthermore, Notre Dame does not have a good history in weekend noon starts on the road, like St. John’s will be. In a similar situation last year, the No. 14 Irish lost 72-54 to St. John’s in Madison Square Garden. And even if Notre Dame can defeat the Red Storm, could it realistically defeat No. 8 Georgetown on its home floor two nights later?
As we’ve learned over the past month, don’t put anything past this Irish team that has forged its way into the history books when its season was already considered history in November.
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