It was a day that typified Notre Dame’s below-the-radar season at the Big East Tournament on Thursday.
A day dominated by the aftermath of the controversial finish to the St. John’s-Rutgers game on Wednesday — with the three referees from that game taking themselves out of further tournament games; and Kemba Walker’s buzzer-beater that knocked off top-seeded Pittsburgh.
Then Notre Dame went out and played basketball like it’s supposed to be played.
Without skipping a beat from their 14-4 regular season in the Big East, the Irish dismantled No. 7-seed Cincinnati 89-51 in the Big East quarterfinals Thursday night.
It was the second-largest margin of victory in the 31-year history of the Big East Tournament. The only bigger wipeout was Syracuse’s 96-55 rout of Boston College in 1999. And not only was that a first-round game, but it came against a hapless team — Boston College came into that one with a 6-20 record.
Notre Dame took apart a Cincinnati team that came in 25-7 and had won
six of its last seven games. And it came against the backdrop of an
ominous trend: To that point, teams with the double-bye into the
quarterfinals were 3-6 against single-digit seeds since the Big East
went to the double-bye two years ago.
In fact, it was only the fifth blowout of 20-or-more points in the last
15 years of the Big East tournament. Last year’s quarterfinals were
decided by a TOTAL of 19 points.
”To stay loose starting with the Villanova game [Feb. 28] we played
knockout at the end of our shootaround and I’m involved,” coach Mike
Brey said. ”I knocked Carleton Scott out before the Connecticut game
and when I got behind him in line today, he was nervous. Tom Knight
knocked me out and we were loose.
”We’ve attacked and played to win during the regular season. My biggest
concern was the dynamic change here and we’re a high seed and the
double-bye and all that. But these guys have been in a really good frame
of mind of attacking and going for it.”
At that point of the post-game interview in the bowels of Madison Square
Garden, Scott interjected: ”Just for the record, Coach was shooting
free throws and we were shooting three-pointers. That’s why he beat
That elicited a hearty laugh from not only reporters at the press
conference but Brey himself. This team is pretty loose and it showed
against Cincinnati, when the Irish exhibited just about every one of
their strengths that took them to a surprising second-place finish in
the Big East regular season.
Notre Dame shot 56 percent from the field (32-of-57), including 47
percent from three-point range (9-of-19). They shot the three well
early, hitting eight of their first 15 threes — including 4-of-6 by Tim
Abromaitis — to take a 40-30 halftime lead.
The Irish had 22 assists on their 32 baskets (69 percent). Ben
Hansbrough (23 points on 8-of-11 shooting, six assists) and Abromaitis
(17 points, four assists) played well, but Scott stepped up with 18
points on 6-of-8 shooting with six rebounds, four assists and four
The Irish held Cincinnati to 33 percent shooting (19-of-58), 23 percent
on three-pointers (5-of-22). Bearcats center Yancy Gates, who scored 25
points on 10-of-11 shooting against South Florida in the second round,
scored 12 points on 4-of-10 shooting, with nine rebunds and three
blocks, against Notre Dame.
Chicagoan Dion Dixon, a junior guard from Crane who is Cincinnati’s second-leading scorer (11.2 ppg), led the Bearcats with 15 points.
”Notre Dame played tremendous tonight. We obviously were at our worst
and they were at their best,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. ”We
got taken to the woodshed. They’re tough to defend. Their great offense
at times demoralized us. But we tried man, zone, we tried pass. We tried
everything. We couldn’t get the stops we needed and couldn’t get
anything going at the offensive end. Even our free throws were 8-for-17,
so it was a frustrating night for our guys.”
Notre Dame still has a lot to prove in this tournament — starting with
tonight’s semifinal against Louisville, a team it needed overtime to
beat at the Joyce Center on Feb. 9. Notre Dame is 0-3 in Big East Tournament semifinals (losing to West Virginia 53-51 last year, Georgetown 84-82 in 2007) and Connecticut 82-77 in 2002). But this is the first time they’re coming off a 38-point victory over a 25-7 opponent in the quarterfinals.