Notre Dame, led yet again by Pat Connaughton, will move on to their 4th straight Big East tournament semi-final after a victory over regular season co-champion Marquette (23-8, 14-4) last night.
After a poor shooting start led to a 17-4 deficit nine minutes into the game, the Irish battled back quickly to a four point lead by halftime. This comeback - did it remind anyone else of Pittsburgh a few weeks ago? - was keyed by Jerian Grant (17 pts, 6 rebs, 6 assists), two Connaughton three-pointers, and the three big men each chipping in points in the final 11 minutes of the half. Garrick Sherman (16 pts, 6 rebs) and Tom Knight (8 pts, 4 rebs) scored the last 10 Irish points of the half.
The second half was an intense back-and-forth between Marquette and Notre Dame, as from 19:40 to 9:38 left in the game, neither team held a lead of more than two points. Marquette had actually taken a four point lead at that point, a lead wiped away by Grant and Sherman. When Sherman awkwardly tipped in his own miss with six and a half remaining, the Irish took a lead that they would not relinquish.
Unsurprisingly, two more big Connaughton threes created some distance between the two sides, including one off a huge Jack Cooley offensive board and the other from a sweet little pick and fade drawn up by Mike Brey coming out of a timeout. The Irish, in an area they have struggled, were clutch with their free throws down the stretch to ice it.
Marquette, for their part, were led by Jamil Wilson (16 pts - why does he not start over Juan Anderson?), Junior Cadougan (14 pts), and Vander Blue (12 pts) and won the rebounding margin. However, they really struggled defensively over the last 30 minutes with pretty low effort on that end and had twice as many turnovers as the Irish (14 to 7). They are likely looking at a 5 seed for the NCAA tournament.
Notre Dame now plays Louisville for the third straight season in the Big East tournament semi-finals (Tonight, 9 ET, ESPN). I've said it before, but the Irish still owe them for two years ago. If you remember, the Irish - at the time a top five team in the nation - had as much as a 16 point lead in the second half that the Cardinals erased en route to a double overtime victory. Notre Dame gets a second chance at MSG redemption, following a laugher in last year's tournament, with each team playing very well so far in their combined 3 wins in the tournament.
As much as the Irish seem to be clicking after last night's impressive victory, Louisville may very well be the hottest team in the country, winning 11 of their last 12 games dating back to January. That one loss was to Notre Dame in the 5 OT thriller, but the miraculousness of that comeback does not exactly instill confidence that the Irish can beat them again, especially after last weekend's loss at the Yum Exclamation Point Center.
Throw all that out, though. This is the Big East tournament, and stranger things have happened in the Garden over the years. This will be one of these two team's final Big East game, so let's hope the Irish surprise everyone and send Louisville home early this time. If they play like they did last night, this is a very real possibility.