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Notre Dame Using NIT To Prove Point

March 27, 2000

AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK (AP) – Notre Dame is using its NIT run to send a message to the NCAA selection committee: The Irish should have been one of the tournament’s 64 teams.

“We’ve talked about proving them wrong since the beginning of this tournament,” Irish coach Matt Doherty said Monday during a luncheon introducing the coaches of the NIT semifinalists.

“That’s been part of our mission – to prove to the NCAA committee that they made a mistake. I tell the team to look at Wisconsin (in the NCAA tournament). They have 13 losses. That could have been us.”

Notre Dame (21-14) will play Penn State (18-15) in the second semifinal Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. In the first game, North Carolina State (20-12) will face Wake Forest (20-14). The championship is Thursday night.

“These four teams could be in that other tournament, but I, uh, forget the name of it,” Doherty said.

Doherty expressed his frustration when Notre Dame was not selected to participate in the NCAA’s field of 64, but he refused to allow his team to dwell on it. Now, Notre Dame is two wins from the NIT championship.

“I’m grateful to the NIT because I think we should be playing for some kind of championship,” Doherty said.

“Yes, we were disappointed at not making the NCAAs, and that’s no slight to the NIT. There were some teams this year that were very disappointed, and couldn’t overcome that.”

Notre Dame beat Michigan, Xavier and Brigham Young to join Louisville (1985), St. John’s (’89) and Minnesota (’93) as schools who have played in the semifinals of both the preseason and postseason NITs. The Irish lost to Arizona in the semifinals in November.

“We kind of have the same itinerary that we’ve kept from the preseason NIT and just changed the dates and the times,” Doherty said.

The Irish are led by 6-foot-9 sophomore Troy Murphy, the Big East player of the year and the only AP first-team All-America selection still playing.

“Troy Murphy is an outstanding player, who has a number of good players to complement him,” Penn State coach Jerry Dunn said. “They’re a very good team in what is probably one of the strongest fields ever in the NIT.”

Jarrett Stephens returned from a career-threatening knee injury in the 1998 NIT semifinals against Georgia to lead the Nittany Lions in scoring (18.7 points) and rebounding (10.7). Penn State, which hasn’t played Notre Dame since beating the Irish in the 1954 NCAA tournament, is also led by brothers Joe and Jon Crispin.

In the other semifinal, ACC rivals Wake Forest and N.C. State play for the third time this season. The teams have never met in the postseason, however, other than the ACC tournament.

“It’s not an advantage for either team,” N.C. State coach Herb Sendek said. “They know us well, and obviously, we know them very well. It’s actually a challenge for both of our teams.”

The Wolfpack, in their first NIT semifinal since 1978, beat the Deamon Deacons 76-56 in Raleigh, N.C., in January. A month later, Wake Forest routed N.C. State 71-53 in Winston Salem, N.C.

“His team was a better team the first time around,” Wake Forest coach Dave Odom said. “They played much better defense and our offense was in a state of flux. When we played in Winston Salem, our team had gotten a lot better.”

N.C. State, which last made it to the NIT semifinals in 1983, is led by guard Anthony Grundy, forward Kenny Inge, and forward Damien Wilkins. Wilkins, a 6-6 freshman, is the son of former New York Knicks player Gerald Wilkins, and the nephew of former NBA All-Star Dominique Wilkins.

“Damien has become a great player for us despite the expectations others put on him,” Sendek said.

Wake Forest has been led by forward Darius Songaila and guard Robert O’Kelley.

“There is no shame in playing basketball in the last week of March,” Odom said. “There is no shame in playing in New York, and there’s no shame in playing at Madison Square Garden. There’s nothing but excitement, pride and joy for us.”

All four coaches said they expect closely played games, but added that a number of factors will decide which team leaves the Big Apple with its first NIT title.

“There is a fine line between the competition in college basketball today,” Doherty said. “It’s all about execution, making shots, biorhythms and the stars and the moon being in the right place that day.”