Irish Rewind: Oh, how sweet it is for Notre Dame program
INDIANAPOLIS -- When the day dawned, Dan Miller was the only player in the Notre Dame locker room with a trip to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 on his college basketball resume.
Late Saturday afternoon, following the most impressive effort in months by Miller and his Irish teammates, he had plenty of company.
Once the second-round game ended, and sophomore point guard Chris Thomas had launched the game ball toward the RCA Dome ceiling, No. 5 seed Notre Dame was ticketed for its first Sweet 16 trip since 1987 with a 68-60 victory over No. 4 seed Illinois.
Notre Dame shot past Illinois at the start, then shifted that offensive momentum to a determined defensive effort in the second half. The Irish limited Illinois to just 34.9 percent shooting from the floor for the game.
"Our defense won the basketball game," said Irish head coach Mike Brey, who was able to celebrate his 44th birthday in style. "That's an area where we needed to be better if we were going to win any games in this tournament."
The Irish also were able to lead from start to finish thanks to their work from long range. Their 13 three-pointers set a school record for an NCAA Tournament game and tied a season high.
Notre Dame, now 24-9, advances to the West Region semifinal and will play No. 1 seed Arizona on Thursday at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, Calif.
Starting times for the NCAA Regionals are expected to be finalized tonight.
Miller steered the Irish into the tournament's second weekend with a game-high and career-high 23 points. He was 9-for-15 from the floor, including 5-of-7 from three-point range. As Irish coaches and players swarmed in celebration at midcourt, Miller stood off to the side with barely a sliver of a smile. It was a magical moment for a program that only recently snapped an 11-year NCAA Tournament drought, but Miller, who played in a Final Four at Maryland, wants more.
"We're going to the Sweet 16, but I know we're not satisfied," he said. "I'm not satisfied."
Saturday's performance by Miller was the main reason Brey was intrigued about adding him, if only for one year. The program needed someone this season who could talk of playing deep into March.
Miller often has little to say, but Saturday, let his game speak for him.
"He has helped us take the next step," Brey said. "Dan Miller has made us a tougher team."
The first-half numbers were simply numbing.
The Irish scored 47 points on a team that had allowed an average of 61.4 per game all season. It was the most points allowed in a first half all year by Illinois, which also failed to score a single fast-break point while the Irish tallied 11.
Notre Dame shot 17-of-35 from the floor (48.6) and a sizzling 11-for-16 (68.8 percent) from behind the arc.
"It was a matter of time," said senior shooting guard Matt Carroll. "We've had flashes where we've come down and just lit people up and just made shots from everywhere. It's great that it's finally happened now.
"It's almost like we were due."
Illinois point guard Dee Brown plays so fast that he sometimes threatens to run right out of his sneakers, and out of the building. But it was Thomas who set the tempo as the Irish limited their turnovers to three in the first half.
"We knew they were a great transition team," Brown said. "They pitched the ball quickly and were able to get down the court and hit some great shots."
Notre Dame opened a double-digit lead 14 minutes into the game. A 13-point lead at the break was its largest since a 22-point lead against Canisius way back on Dec. 22.
"We didn't defend them the way we needed to," said Illinois head coach Bill Self, whose team's finishes the season at 25-7. "They really came out and had us on our heels."
Miller, playing with more confidence than he ever showed during battles in the Big East, set the scoring tone with 17 first-half points. He sank six of seven shots from the floor, including all five of his three-point attempts.
One time, while being guarded by Roger Powell, Miller dribbled the ball on the left wing, faked a drive to the basket and stepped back a good three feet behind the three-point arc.
His shot simply swished through the net.
"My advantage is that I can drive the ball and shoot over the top with my size," said the 6-foot-8 Miller. "When I got that stretch going, they were playing off me, so I just pulled the trigger on them."
Thomas added 17 points and five assists as he played all 40 minutes for the third time in the last four games.
"We were just so excited (Friday) night to come out here and play," Thomas said. "We just played with a lot of energy."
Notre Dame scrapped any notion of a 2-3 zone defense against the lightning-quick Brown and the rest of the Illini, who rely heavily on Big Ten player of the year Brian Cook. The Irish opened in a man-to-man look to start the game and stayed with it most of the day.
Irish freshman forward Torin Francis, who grabbed 14 rebounds for the second consecutive game, did not want it any other way.
"Sitting back in a zone, that's lazy," he said. "We knew we could match up with them."
Playing man allowed the Irish to carry over the fearlessness they showed on offense. Too many times in a regular-season that has been quickly forgotten, they let other teams dictate the tempo by sitting back in a zone.
"That's what contributed to some of our offensive drought," Francis said. "Starting out in man, we're moving our feet, we get our bodies going and we're just more intense."
Staff writer Tom Noie: email@example.com (574) 235-6153
Each week during the college basketball season, NDI takes a look back at a memorable Irish game with a reprint of the story that appeared in the South Bend Tribune.
This week's Irish Rewind seems fitting given what transpired on Sunday when Notre Dame advanced to the Sweet 16 for the second time in as many seasons.
In 2003, Notre Dame made it to its first Sweet 16 in 16 seasons with a second-round NCAA Tournament victory over Illinois. This story appeared in the March 23, 2001 edition of the Tribune.
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