One more night of magic for Notre Dame and Mike Brey at Purcell Pavilion

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Just when you thought the old coach couldn’t squeeze one more drop of magic from the old building before riding off into the college basketball sunset, Wednesday happened. 

Just when you thought there was no way a veteran Irish team could shake free from a seven-game losing streak and win for the first time in 32 days, Wednesday happened. 

Just when you thought 30-some odd former players seated scattered about Section 7 of Purcell Pavilion would have little reason to stick around until the final horn, Wednesday happened. 

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Just when you thought you’d seen it all (most of it not good) in a very long season for the Notre Dame men’s basketball Wednesday happened. 

Playing for themselves, playing for their head coach who’s stepping away for good likely sometime next week, playing for all the guys who came before them and who were seated in front of them Wednesday, playing just to play, Notre Dame snapped its league losing streak and beat a ranked team in an Atlantic Coast Conference home game for the first time since March 6, 2021 when it dispatched No. 25 Pittsburgh, 88-81. 

“What an unbelievable night,” Mike Brey said in his post-game radio show of his last home game as head coach. “It was neat to feel this atmosphere one last time.” 

Mar 1, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey enters the Purcell Pavilion before the game against the Pittsburgh Panthers. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The final Irish tally tied the season high for points, and set the standard for points in a league game as Notre Dame got 20 points each from guards Marcus Hammond and Cormac Ryan, both of whom made sure that home game No. 391 for Brey would end the only way it had to end. The way it should end. The way it did end. 

With a win, which was No. 315 at home for Brey.

“We just wanted to realize our last game here and go out with a bang,” said Hammond, who certainly did with his season high for points. “It was fun. I was locked in since (Tuesday) ready to get back on the court.” 

It was a weird night on a lot of levels at Purcell Pavilion, which was hot and stuffy and carried a vibe it hadn’t carried all season. There was buzz in the building. Some anticipation. Of what, nobody could know building toward also an unknown. Prior to tip, the mood, the narrative had nothing to do with the game itself. Win or lose, it really didn’t much matter. It was all about Brey coaching his final game at home.

Mar 1, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Fans hold photos of Notre Dame coach Mike Brey during the first half of the game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Pittsburgh Panthers at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

But as the game started, and started unfolding, everything about the evening and how it would go seemed to shift. It wasn’t about what Brey was doing, or the cascade of memories that flashed across the video boards at center court during timeouts. It was about this Notre Dame team, these old guys who had been kicked around for the better part of two months but who put together its best 40 minutes of basketball that it played all season. Better than its two previous league wins. Better than the 18-point victory over then-No. 20 Michigan State way back in November. Better than we’d seen from then since this whole crazy season started with such hope and promise. 

For long stretches, really for the entire night, Notre Dame looked like the No. 25 team in the country, not Pittsburgh. Notre Dame looked like it stepped on the court at the start of the game the first-place team in the ACC, not Pittsburgh. Notre Dame looked and played like the confident bunch that everyone expected to see out of Pittsburgh, which led for all of 37 seconds. 

Mar 1, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey stands with his players for the Notre Dame Alma Mater following their win over the Pittsburgh Panthers at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame looked like the team with 14 league wins at the start of the night, not Pittsburgh. 

No way Notre Dame (11-19; 3-16) was losing this one. Uh-uh. Not for the seniors playing for their last home game. Not for all those alumni watching from the stands. And not for Brey. It all added up to be a night to remember in a season to forget. 

Why this night from those guys? Simple, said Ryan, who provided his own exclamation point in the closing seconds with a two-handed dunk.  

“We wanted it bad, for a variety of reasons,” he said. “At no point, have we ever given up. I think there was starting to be a little bit of a narrative like, the guys don’t want to win. People are ready for spring break. 

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is illuminated by a spotlight before the team's NCAA college basketball game against Pittsburgh on Wednesday, March 1, 2023, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Michael Caterina)

“Nobody wanted it more than the guys in that locker room. To send Coach out with a win means everything to us.” 

Brey promised he wouldn’t get emotional over this one, but those in the know behind the scenes admitted that yeah, the old coach shed a few tears after this one went final. He didn’t stick around to do any post-game media outside of his radio obligation. When that was over, he went to the coach's locker room to change – into a gray T-shirt – and was out the back door and out into the night. 

Time to have some fun in a season that's been a slog. Like the season, even that promise by Brey the previous afternoon to take the party deep into the night didn't really deliver. He said he'd close down the nearby Linebacker Lounge, but stayed barely 90 minutes (some of those spent with athletic director Jack Swarbrick) before he was steered out a side door just before 11 p.m. Next stop, the Morris Inn and a calmer gathering with many of his former players.

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Let the rest of the staff handle the early Clemson prep. A victory lap from the outgoing guy was needed.

Having spent eight years as an assistant coach for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, when he helped the Blue Devils win a pair of national championships, there isn’t much that Brey has over K. But he does have this – at least Brey won his last home game. 

What started with a home win over Sacred Heart on a Saturday night in November 2000 ended with a home win on a Wednesday night in March 2023. A lot of memories and wins in between for Brey.

While Brey was off in search of an adult beverage and even a shot of Jameson, Ryan still was in full uniform and on the court mingling with some friends and former players. There were plenty nights this season where he couldn’t yank that jersey off fast enough. Wednesday, it seemed like he’d never take it off. And no, for the record, he had no plans of joining his head coach at the ‘Backer. He had more on his mind. 

“I’ve got a final exam tomorrow, 1 p.m., and I’ll be there,” he said. 

An hour after this one went final, there Ryan stood at the free throw line near the Irish bench. Still in uniform. Still talking to family. Not ready to let it all end. Even after he had showered and changed, he returned to the court with family. Just there letting everything soak in.

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Ryan insisted that for as much as Notre Dame showed in leading by as many as 20 points and for 37:57, there’s still more to show. Maybe Saturday when it closes the regular season at Clemson. Maybe next week in Greensboro, North Carolina at the league tournament where nobody expects an extended stay. 

Make that nobody Irish. 

“Call me crazy, but I feel the same way about this group as I did when I was talking to you guys in June,” said Ryan, who dreamed then of going to a Final Four. “I feel the same exact way. It hasn’t gone our way. I’m telling you, I wouldn’t want to play us in Greensboro.” 

Who knows if the Irish can win again and make a run next week. For one more night in their building, college basketball was something it hasn’t been much of this season. 

It was fun. 


PITTSBURGH (81): Federiko 2-4 3-7 7, Burton 8-19 2-4 19, Cummings 5-12 7-9 19, Elliott 1-4 0-0 2, Hinson 6-12 1-5 15, Sibande 5-9 7-11 19, G.Diaz Graham 0-1 0-0 0, J.Diaz Graham 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-61 20-36 81.

NOTRE DAME (88): Laszewski 4-7 5-6 14, Goodwin 3-6 5-6 12, Hammond 8-11 0-0 20, Ryan 6-17 6-6 20, Wertz 2-7 8-8 14, Lubin 3-5 2-3 8, Carmody 0-0 0-2 0, Zona 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-53 26-31 88.

Halftime: Notre Dame 42-28. 3-Point Goals: Pittsburgh 7-22 (Cummings 2-4, Sibande 2-4, Hinson 2-7, Burton 1-4, G.Diaz Graham 0-1, Elliott 0-2), Notre Dame 10-27 (Hammond 4-6, Wertz 2-6, Ryan 2-9, Goodwin 1-2, Laszewski 1-4). Fouled Out: Goodwin, Lubin. Rebounds: Pittsburgh 38 (Hinson 13), Notre Dame 32 (Laszewski 8). Assists: Pittsburgh 8 (Burton, Sibande 2), Notre Dame 14 (Wertz 5). Total Fouls: Pittsburgh 21, Notre Dame 25. A: 8,582 (9,149).