March 22, 2003
By JIM O’CONNELL
AP Basketball Writer
Notre Dame’s 3-point barrage that carried it to the third round of the NCAA tournament hardly was a shock. That the Fighting Irish held Illinois to 60 points was another matter.
The 68-60 victory Saturday moved Notre Dame into the third round for the first time since 1987. It was the first time the Fighting Irish looked like a Top Ten team in a while.
Notre Dame was 4-6 in its last 10 games entering the NCAA tournament. In that span, six opponents scored over 80 points and two of those cracked 90.
The 3-point shooting stayed solid at 37.8 percent; stopping other teams was the problem.
On Saturday, the Fighting Irish were 13-for-24 from 3-point range, including Dan Miller going 5-for-7. Just as impressive, the Fighting Irish held Illinois 11 points below what they had allowed on average all season.
“We jumped on them early and hits those 3s, and then we had to play defense and rebound, and we did,” said Chris Thomas, who had 17 points for Notre Dame (24-9).
Illinois shot just 38 percent, 10 points worse than its percentage for the season.
“The way they came out and played in the first half, no one would have been able to beat them,” Illinois coach Bill Self said. “We got a lot of looks. They just didn’t fall today.”
Digger Phelps was the coach when Notre Dame last went to the regional semifinals. This time, Mike Brey is in charge.
“This is huge for our program,” he said. “In the summer we talked about playing on the second weekend. I’m happy this group set a goal and achieved it.”
Notre Dame will be joined in the round of 16 by Connecticut, which beat Stanford 85-74 Saturday. The two wins gave the Big East a 6-0 mark, with Syracuse and Pittsburgh playing Sunday.
The only other multi-bid league to escape the first round unbeaten was the Big Ten, but Notre Dame’s win over Illinois took care of that spotless record.