March 21, 2003

GAME: No. 5 Notre Dame (23-9) vs. No. 4 Illinois (25-6).
REGIONAL: West, second round.
TIME: Saturday, 1:10 p.m. EST.
SITE: The RCA Dome; Indianapolis.

While Notre Dame and Illinois are two of the top five seeds in the West Regional, both teams barely survived to reach the second round of the NCAA tournament in Indianapolis.

The Irish and Illini look to put their lackluster play behind them when they meet in the second round.

Notre Dame had a close call in the first round Thursday, but escaped with a 70-69 victory only after Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Dylan Page missed a layup with 2 seconds left.

“When I came off, I was thinking what a great day of games,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “We’re all fortunate, maybe more us than anybody to come out with a win.”

Notre Dame guard Chris Thomas scored 27 points and grabbed eight rebounds, and teammate Torin Francis had 23 points and 14 rebounds, as well as the go-ahead basket with 22 seconds left.

The fifth-seeded Irish are in the second round for the third straight year, though they haven’t advanced to the round of 16 during that stretch.

Notre Dame may have troubling snapping that streak because it could be without leading scorer Matt Carroll on Saturday. The senior guard missed the second half Thursday with a sprained left ankle.

Thomas knows the Irish will have to play a strong game if Carroll can’t go, especially against the fourth-seeded Illini.

“They’re one of the nation’s best teams,” Thomas said.

Illinois may be one of the top teams in the country, but it had to rely on a group of untested tournament players in its first-round matchup with Western Kentucky on Thursday.

Freshmen Dee Brown, Deron Williams and James Augustine combined for 37 points, 16 rebounds and 13 assists in their first tournament game, and Brown hit two free throws with 22.8 seconds left to lift the Illini to a 65-60 victory.

Big Ten player of the year Brian Cook had his typical game with 17 points and 10 rebounds, but he fouled out with 2:03 remaining. Instead of wilting without their leader on the floor, the Illini closed out the win behind their freshman trio.

“We’re starting to learn our roles,” Brown said after finishing with 16 points, seven rebounds and eight assists. “I know people say inexperience is going to hurt or whatever, but I’ve got to contribute to the team.”

The winner of Saturday’s game advances to the regional semifinals Thursday in Anaheim, where it will face either No. 1 Arizona or No. 9 Gonzaga.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Notre Dame – F Torrian Jones, F Dan Miller, C Francis, G Thomas, G Carroll or Chris Quinn. Illinois – F Cook, F Roger Powell, C Augustine, G Brown, G Williams.

TEAM LEADERS: Notre Dame – Carroll, 20.1 ppg; Francis, 8.1 rpg; Thomas, 7.1 apg. Illinois – Cook, 20.0 ppg and 7.3 rpg, Brown, 5.0 apg.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Notre Dame – At-large bid, Big East; beat No. 12 Wisconsin-Milwaukee 70-69, first round. Illinois – Automatic bid, Big Ten tournament champion; beat No. 13 Western Kentucky 65-60, first round.

ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORD: Notre Dame – 28-30, 27 years. Illinois – 30-23, 23 years.