March 18, 2003

From the Associated Press

GAME: No. 12 Wisconsin-Milwaukee (24-7) vs. No. 5 Notre Dame (22-9).
REGIONAL: West Regional, first round.
TIME: Thursday, 9:50 p.m. EST.
SITE: The RCA Dome; Indianapolis.

Despite a poor finish to the regular season, things turned out just fine for Notre Dame when NCAA tournament bids went out.

With their highest seed in 16 years and a chance to play two games in their home state, the Fighting Irish try to overcome their late-season struggles when they face No. 12 Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Notre Dame lost four of its last five games, but came up a winner Sunday. The Irish get to play a tournament newcomer in the first round, and only have to travel about three hours from South Bend to do it.

The game at the RCA Dome is a homecoming for Notre Dame guard Chris Thomas, an Indianapolis native who played at Pike High School.

“I just had a feeling we’d be in Indianapolis,” Thomas said. “I think it’s pretty much set up where we can get some wins and have some support.”

While Notre Dame should have plenty of fan support, there probably won’t be any wins if the Irish don’t play better defense than they did at the end of the regular season.

Notre Dame gave up an average of 87.4 points during its last five games, surrendering 80 or more in each one. The Irish allow 71.2 points per game, 11th in the 14-team Big East.

Even with the poor finish, the No. 5 seed is the best for the Irish since they were also fifth in 1987. That is also the last time they made it past the second round, where they have lost each of the last two years.

“The thing that’s changed is our expectations. Obviously, we’ve went to the second round of the tournament two years in a row. My goal and the goal of this team is we want to get to the Sweet 16,” senior Matt Carroll said. “We want to win in this tournament. We want to make a run in it. I think our mindset has changed.”

Wisconsin-Milwaukee earned its first NCAA tournament bid after beating Butler 69-52 in the championship game of the Horizon League tournament. Tournament MVP Clay Tucker scored 18 of his 23 points in the first half.

If the Panthers are to pull the upset, they will likely need a big game from Tucker. He led the team with 18.3 points per game, while adding 5.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists.

“Notre Dame is obviously a quality program with great basketball tradition,” Tucker said. “They have good depth and have quality players at the one through five positions. We just have to play our game.”

This is the first meeting between the teams. The winner advances to face fourth-seeded Illinois or No. 13 Western Kentucky in the second round.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Wisconsin-Milwaukee – F Dylan Page, F Tucker, C Nate Mielke, G Ronnie Jones, G Jason Frederick. Notre Dame – F Torrian Jones, F Dan Miller, C Torin Francis, G Thomas, G Carroll.

TEAM LEADERS: Wisconsin-Milwaukee – Tucker, 18.3 ppg and 4.1 apg; Page, 6.5 rpg. Notre Dame – Carroll, 20.6 ppg; Francis, 7.9 rpg; Thomas, 7.2 apg.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Wisconsin-Milwaukee – Automatic bid, Horizon League tournament champion. Notre Dame – At-large berth, Big East.

ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORD: Wisconsin-Milwaukee – First appearance. Notre Dame – 27-30, 26 years.