March 11, 2010
NEW YORK (AP)–Draining the shot clock on nearly every possession and relying on stout defense, Notre Dame is playing its best basketball of the season at the perfect time.
Luke Harangody came off the bench and hit three key free throws in the final two minutes, helping the Fighting Irish hold off No. 16 Pittsburgh 50-45 in the Big East tournament quarterfinals Thursday night for their season-best sixth straight victory.
“I thought we really defended the last seven minutes to win the game, because they defended us,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “I thought we were fabulous on that end of the floor.”
Harangody and Tory Jackson each had 12 points in a bruising, defensive struggle. When the dust finally cleared, the Fighting Irish (23-10) had consecutive wins in the Big East tournament for the first time since joining the league for the 1995-96 season.
After reaching the semifinals for the third time, seventh-seeded Notre Dame will play Cincinnati or No. 7 West Virginia in the second game Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
“Our interior defense and ball-screen defense has been the most consistent since I’ve been here,” said Brey, in his 10th season at Notre Dame. “I guess when your life is on the line, you’re really good at it.”
Brad Wanamaker scored 16 points for Pittsburgh (24-8), knocked out in its Big East tournament opener as the No. 2 seed for the second straight year. Before that, the Panthers reached three finals in a row and seven in a span of eight seasons.
“We’ve just got to shoot better. We’ve got to play better. And we had plenty of opportunities to take the lead, and we just couldn’t get over that hump,” Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said.
With former President Bill Clinton sitting a few rows back near midcourt, Pittsburgh became the third ranked Big East team with a double bye into the quarterfinals that lost its tournament opener Thursday.
No. 3 Syracuse and No. 10 Villanova were the others, meaning the squads with better seeds were 0-3 so far Thursday.
“So much for the double byes, huh? I do think there’s some advantage to being able to play a little bit,” Brey said.
Playing without an injured Harangody, the Fighting Irish began their winning streak with a 68-53 victory over then-No. 12 Pittsburgh on Feb. 24. They pulled this one out despite going nearly nine minutes without a field goal in the second half.
Notre Dame, which has never advanced past the semifinals, led almost the entire way and outscored Pitt 10-6 over the final 6:56. The Panthers dropped to 24-11 at Madison Square Garden since 2000-01, losing for the fifth time in their last 17 games here.
“We just didn’t make shots that we usually make,” forward Jermaine Dixon said.
Harangody, who entered the tournament as the nation’s second-leading scorer at 23.3 points per game, missed five games late in the regular season with a badly bruised right knee. Notre Dame lost the first two by a combined three points before putting together three consecutive wins without him.
He’s been coming off the bench since his return, and looked healthy Wednesday night while posting 20 points and 10 rebounds in a 68-56 win over Seton Hall.
But the senior forward was inconsistent in 22 minutes against a physical Pittsburgh squad, and he sat out for a long stretch late in the second half, a white towel draped over his knees.
“It’s holding up good. I was curious to see how two games in a row would go with my conditioning. I’m still not there yet. But I think every day it’s getting a little better,” Harangody said. “This run we made at the end of the season, it was pretty special. These guys have played great without me. Now to make a run in the Big East tournament is great as well.”
Jackson’s 3-pointer put the Irish up 46-40 with 3:26 left, and Harangody re-entered when forward Carleton Scott fouled out with 3:12 remaining.
Harangody’s free throw made it 47-43 with 1:52 to go, but Wanamaker hit an acrobatic layup to pull Pittsburgh within two.
After Harangody was called for traveling, Wanamaker missed a driving layup and Jermaine Dixon was off on a tough, spinning bank shot.
Harangody grabbed the rebound and sank two free throws with 15.9 seconds left, making it 49-45. Tim Abromaitis blocked Travon Woodall’s attempted layup, and Pitt never scored again.
“Obviously, when I get that turnover, I’m very upset,” Harangody said. “You have to go on to the next play. I didn’t put my head down. I said, `I’m going to make this up to my team.”