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Notre Dame on course to meet Kentucky

You should never check out early on the opening weekend of the Big Dance. The NCAA Tournament’s annual party usually runs late, you see, and sometimes you can still hear the music going well after midnight.

Late Saturday, I was exhausted from three days of basketball and ready to call it a day. Then I discovered that Notre Dame and Butler were tied with two minutes to play in Pittsburgh, where North Carolina State had stunned top seed Villanova just hours before.

So it was back on the couch, remote in hand, for another gripping finish.

It wasn’t a work of art. Neither team scored in the final 2:56 of regulation, which ended in a 55-55 tie. But it has been teams’ inability to finish games that has created much of the drama in this year’s tourney.

Butler, which is located about 150 miles from Notre Dame in hoops-crazed Indiana, had a chance to win with 2.0 seconds left in regulation. But senior guard Pat Connaughton soared into the right corner to swat a three-point shot out of bounds to keep it tied.

After his block, Connaughton shouted “Not tonight!” Connaughton, playing in a school-record 137th game, then defended a last-second lob and the game went to overtime. He nailed a three-pointer to break a 59-all tie and the Fighting Irish went on for a 67-64 OT triumph.

It was after midnight when Notre Dame clinched a spot in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003. It was an emotional win for coach Mike Brey, who had been criticized for failing to get the Fighting Irish past the Round of 32 in his last six trips to the Dance.

But players, media and fans didn’t realize just how emotional a day it had been for Brey until minutes after the game, when he revealed that his mother had died of a heart attack at age 83 Saturday morning.

Brey said the game had been “kind of a tribute” to Betty Mullen Brey, who swam for the United States in the 1956 Olympics and later became women’s swim coach at George Washington. It was her competitive spirit that motivated her children to achieve at a high level in life.

Early in the day, Brey learned of his mother’s death from his brother and sister, who were at his parents’ home in Orlando with his father. They told him he should be with his team Saturday. Brey agreed. He didn’t inform his players of the news until after the win.

By then it was Sunday. Brey’s 56th birthday.

Brey flew to Orlando on Sunday to be with his family. He’ll have to return soon to prepare the Fighting Irish for Thursday’s regional semifinal game against Wichita State in Cleveland.

Notre Dame hasn’t advanced to an Elite Eight since 1979, when the Irish lost to a Michigan State team led by a kid named Magic Johnson.

Their fans had begun to wonder if Brey, who took over as Notre Dame’s head coach in 2000, would ever win two games in the tournament again.

Since reaching the Sweet 16 in Brey’s third season in 2003, the Fighting Irish had failed to get that far in six straight trips to the NCAAs. Four times they lost to lower seeds in their opening game.

They haven’t played especially well in this year’s tournament as a No. 3 seed, either. The ACC champs didn’t put away Northeastern until the final possession of its first game. The Irish, one of the top shooting teams in the nation, are 8 of 26 from three-point range in two games.

But they have survived, which is all that matters. Notre Dame, now 31-5, moves on to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, adding a sentimental twist to a Midwest region where the dominant story line was expected to be Kentucky’s inexorable march toward a perfect, 40-0 season.

We could be on the verge of one of those matchups that make the NCAA Tournament such an endlessly fascinating event - the unbeatable team against the team playing in the memory of its coach’s late mother.

It would be hard to beat that for drama, and I’m sure the TV folks would make the most of it if it happened. Who wasn’t moved by the story of Albany’s Peter Hooley going home to Australia to see his dying mother, than making the winning shot to send his team to the NCAAs?

Kentucky coach John Calipari is an easy man to despise, though I admire him for being upfront about the fact that major college basketball is essentially big business, a de facto minor league for the NBA.

It’s not as if Notre Dame, with its $100 million athletic budget, is some sort of plucky Cinderella tale. Georgia State, it’s not. But Brey having a chance to ruin Coach Cal’s perfect season in his mother’s memory would make for an irresistible story line.

To get there, Notre Dame has to win a Sweet 16 game for the first time since Bill Laimbeer and Kelly Tripucka were in college. Kentucky has to win, too, of course, and while the Wildcats an overwhelming favorite to win the national title, they’re far from unbeatable.

The Wildcats are one of the best defensive college teams I’ve seen. They’re impossibly big and agile and hold opponents to 35 percent shooting. But they’re a flawed offensive team that relies on offensive rebounds. They wouldn’t hold up against the top NCAA teams of the past - or Florida’s back-to-back champs with Joakim Noah.

It was laughable to hear Larry Brown say Kentucky is good enough to make the NBA playoffs right now in the East. Brown has coached a lot of years in the NBA and should know better. He should show some respect for the NBA, which is a different universe for these college kids. It’s insulting to have to refute the argument.

Really, if it’s so easy for gifted Kentucky players to win in the NBA, why is it that Anthony Davis, who led the Wildcats to the NCAA title as a freshman three years ago, still hasn’t appeared in an NBA playoff game? Neither has his teammate on the 2012 national champs, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, or several other recent Wildcat stars.

Kentucky is the most talented team in a watered-down era of college hoops. As Calipari said after Friday’s uninspiring win over Cincinnati, it’s nice to see they can win when they shoot 37 percent. But at some point, being an average offensive team might catch up to them.

Cincinnati was a favorable matchup for Kentucky. The Bearcats are tough, but they’re weak offensively. They were 295th in scoring and 302nd in three-pointers. Ultimately, they weren’t a good enough shooting or passing team to hang in against that suffocating Kentucky D.

Maybe no one can do it for 40 minutes. But if a team has big men who can force Kentucky’s giants to take mid-range jumpers, and shooters who can spread the court, avoid turnovers and get hot from three, it can happen. Wisconsin fits the bill. So does Arizona.

A skilled, veteran team on an emotional mission – Notre Dame – could be dangerous, too. One way or another, the Cleveland regional just got a little more interesting.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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