March 10, 2012
NEW YORK (AP) – Stopped in the semifinals. That’s been the story five times now for Notre Dame at the BIG EAST tournament.
Peyton Siva delivered another near-flawless floor game, Gorgui Dieng scored 16 points and Louisville dominated the 23rd-ranked Fighting Irish 64-50 on Friday night to reach the title game at Madison Square Garden for the third time in four years.
Seventh-seeded Louisville (25-9), looking for its second tournament title since joining the league for the 2005-06 season, denied Notre Dame again in its quest to make the championship game for the first time. The third-seeded Irish (22-11) fell to 0-5 in the semifinal round – all under coach Mike Brey.
“We had another chance tonight to do something we haven’t done in our program before,” junior forward Jack Cooley said. “It’s a pretty big disappointment, but we’ve just got to move on to the next tournament. The next one next week is the biggest one in the whole season, so that’s what we’ve got to focus on now.”
Brey said Thursday night after a victory over sixth-seeded South Florida that he thought this group, of all his teams, was the “most equipped” to reach the championship round.
It didn’t turn out that way.
The cat-quick Cardinals held the Fighting Irish without a field goal for the final 12:42 in the first half and advanced to play Cincinnati on Saturday night. The fourth-seeded Bearcats, a first-time finalist, upset No. 2 Syracuse 71-68 in the first semifinal, handing the top-seeded Orange their second loss of the season.
Next, the Irish will wait for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament Sunday, which they are expected to receive.
“I think the benefit, you have tomorrow to kind of get your legs under you and travel, and then Sunday we’ll get back into a practice segment,” Brey said. “It’s kind of a fresh start. I talked to them about, given that we leave here with a bad taste in our mouth, can we be really hungrier and a little edgier as we move into the NCAA tournament? I’m really proud of what they’ve done up to this point. They’ve had a heck of a run, and I love the fact that they’re stinging. I hope that helps us in our preparation moving into the next one.”
The championship matchup between Louisville and Cincinnati, both unranked, will be the first BIG EAST final without at least one original league member.
“I think Conference USA has come to the Big Apple,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.
The result was a bit of a surprise if only because the Irish and Cardinals have played such close contests in recent years.
The previous four games between the teams – and five of the past six – went to overtime. The schools split those four meetings, with two going to double OT, including Notre Dame’s 67-65 victory at Louisville on Jan. 7.
But this time, Siva and his running mates throttled the Irish in the first half and never let up. The junior point guard flirted with a triple-double, finishing with 13 points, nine assists and eight rebounds while running the show in Louisville’s new lightweight, neon-orange uniforms.
The Cardinals, who came in ranked fifth nationally in field-goal percentage defense (38 percent), harassed Notre Dame into 2-for-17 shooting (12 percent) from 3-point range and 36 percent overall.
Kyle Kuric added 12 points for the Cardinals, who shot 56 percent from the field – their best mark in a BIG EAST tournament game.
Notre Dame is the only team to reach the semifinals of this tournament each of the last three years. But it has never advanced any further since joining the BIG EAST for the 1995-96 season, also getting eliminated in the semifinals in 2002 and 2007.
The Irish were knocked out by Louisville last season as well, losing 83-77 in overtime after taking a 16-point lead in the first half.
“We are disappointed we didn’t make it to Saturday, but they’re a tough team,” Eric Atkins said. “I give them all the credit. They really got after us. But I think now we have to set new goals in the NCAA tournament and move on from there.”
Notre Dame went the first 8:17 without a turnover and built a six-point advantage on 7-of-14 shooting. But after Pitino put pesky reserve Russ Smith in the game alongside Siva, they forced two giveaways in a row in the backcourt that led to easy baskets.
Brey called a quick timeout, but his team never regained its shooting touch. Hounded by the much-quicker Cardinals, Notre Dame missed its final 14 shots from the field – jumpers, pull-ups, contested layups – as Louisville closed the half on a 26-4 run to go into the break with a commanding 35-19 cushion.
“Their full-court pressure kind of got to us, and we never really did recover,” Brey said. “They defended the heck out of us.”
After halftime, it was more of the same. Cooley hit on Notre Dame’s first attempt to end the drought, but Kuric drained a pair of 3s in the span of a minute to make it 53-29 with 11:21 to go.
Louisville cruised from there to its eighth victory in its past 10 BIG EAST tournament games. The Cardinals won the 2009 title and lost to Connecticut 69-66 in last year’s championship. They have won 11 of their last 16 games overall at Madison Square Garden.
The 6-foot-10 Dieng had an easy time getting low post position against Cooley and Notre Dame’s undersized front line. Dieng tossed in an array of baby hooks and layups as the Cardinals pulled away.
Cooley, selected Most Improved Player in the BIG EAST this season, had 11 points and 11 rebounds. Atkins was the only other Irish player in double figures with 12 points.