March 20, 2003
By DAN GELSTON
Associated Press Writer
INDIANAPOLIS – Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Clay Tucker held the ball as time ticked off, waiting for the right opportunity to make team history.
He drove the lane, ran into a triple team and dished to Dylan Page right under the basket. But Page’s shot rolled off the front of the rim as the buzzer sounded.
The Panthers’ first tournament victory would have to wait.
Chris Thomas scored 27 points – playing all 40 minutes – to lead Notre Dame to a 70-69 victory Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA West Regional.
“What more could I ask for?” Panthers coach Bruce Pearl said. “Our best player had the ball in his hands. He was ready to score, but he drew the defense and got a great look for Dylan. The ball just didn’t go in.”
The fifth-seeded Irish (23-9) are in the second round for the third straight year, though they haven’t advanced to the round of the 16 during that stretch. They’ll play Illinois on Saturday, but could be without Matt Carroll who missed the second half with a sprained left ankle.
The Panthers (24-8) were making their first appearance in the tournament in their 107-year history – and first postseason appearance since the 1989 Division II tournament.
Tucker and Ronnie Jones led the Panthers with 18 points, and Page had 15.
They were in no hurry to head home and played like tournament veterans down the stretch.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee though, had no solution for Thomas, as the Indianapolis native silenced every Panthers’ rally with clutch baskets, assists or free throws.
He even got a hand on Page’s final shot – he thinks.
“I either fouled him or hit the ball,” he said with a grin. “I’m just glad he came out there and missed the shot.”
Thomas missed his share – he was 9-for-21 from the floor – but seemingly sank his shots when he had to. He also came up with an assist that won’t be found in the stat sheet.
Thomas shaved the heads of his Fighting Irish teammates on Wednesday as a show of team unity. Talk about your Golden Domes.
“The Fab Five did it when they were in the tournament,” Thomas said. “And it’s for the men and women in the war.”
Chris Thomas gets past Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Clay Tucker for a shot.
Unity wasn’t enough to hold off the Panthers until the end.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee led 69-68 after Jason Frederick’s 3-pointer with 2:28 left and forced an airball on Notre Dame’s next possession.
The Irish, playing only 140 miles away from home, had the possession arrow and got the ball back on a tieup. After two looks at the basket, Torin Francis grabbed a loose ball in the lane and scored the winning points on a putback with 32.8 seconds to go.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee did not call timeout, and Tucker set up Page right under the basket for the final shot.
“We can’t focus on this last layup,” Tucker said. “We could focus on layups I missed, free throws we missed and other shots we missed.”
Francis finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds.
Thomas scored seven straight points to give Notre Dame a 48-40 lead, but that was wiped out by a 10-0 run by the Panthers.
Ronnie Jones hit a 3-pointer to make it 50-48 with 10:22 left, but Thomas responded with a 3 of his own.
Thomas made a steal on the next possession and was fouled as he drove into the lane. He sank two free throws, then had an assist on Notre Dame’s next possession to make it 55-50.
With just under three minutes left, Justin Lettenberger hit a 3 to pull the Panthers within a point.
Thomas hit two more free throws to make it 68-66 before Frederick hit his 3.
Frederick pumped his fist as the small, but vocal, crowd went wild. It was the last big basket of the season for the Panthers.
“We just didn’t get the blessing this time,” Tucker said. “We had a lot of wonderful blessings this year.”