Thursday March 11th, 2010

NEW YORK -- When the starting lineups were announced for Wednesday night's Notre Dame-Seton Hall Big East tournament game, Irish star Luke Harangody fulfilled one of the duties of his new role as a backup, standing in line and low-fiving the starters as they run on to the court.

Roughly three minutes into the game, Harangody disposed of his warm-up jersey, checked in and proceeded to reassume his former role as a dominant big man.

Buoyed in part by their now-backup forward's huge first half, seventh-seeded Notre Dame (22-10) handled the 10th-seeded Pirates, 68-56, in what was dubbed an unofficial NCAA bubble elimination duel. The Irish almost certainly wrapped up an NCAA tournament berth that seemed implausible just two weeks ago, considering the nation's second-leading scorer was sidelined with a knee injury when their current five-game winning streak began.

"We're one of the best stories in college basketball right now," coach Mike Brey raved afterward.

After Harangody went down, the Irish managed to upset ranked foes Pittsburgh and Georgetown without him, then won at Marquette last Saturday with just a five-point, 11-minute contribution from their star. Many wondered whether Notre Dame was somehow strangely a better team with its two-time All-American big man on the bench.

Brey admits himself to worrying how the rejuvenated Irish would respond to the return of their stalwart. That's one reason why Harangody continues to come off the bench. In truth, however, it was another more radical coaching decision -- one born out of an innocuous dinner conversation during his team's mid-February swoon -- that has altered Notre Dame's direction considerably.

Reminiscing one night with assistant coach Anthony Solomon about playing for Virginia in the 1984 Final Four against Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma outfit, Brey innocently asked, "What was the score of that game?" It was 49-47 -- in overtime.

That score stuck in Brey's head as he went to bed that night, wondering what he might do to shake up his defensively challenged team. Brey, a career-long proponent of up-tempo, 80-point basketball, decided his team needed to slow things down.

"I thought he was crazy at first," said senior point guard Tory Jackson, who'd known only one speed in his first three-plus seasons.

"Slow Burn," is what the coach calls his team's new Hickory High-style offense, one in which the Irish are instructed to milk the shot clock as much as possible to set up better shots and limit its defensive possessions. Seton Hall became the latest victim, shooting just 34.5 percent and netting 56 points, the fourth time in five games Notre Dame held an opponent below 60 points.

"I don't remember the last time that happened," Harangody said. "The evolution of this team is changing. Defense is becoming a bigger part."

Notre Dame can still run when it needs to, however, and in fact the 6-foot-8, 245-pound senior's well-known ability to run the floor provided a necessary spark early in Wednesday's contest.

The Pirates -- coming off a frenetic 109-106 win over Providence the night before -- initially jumped to an 11-2 lead. Over a roughly four-minute stretch thereafter, Harangody scored on two driving layups and an open-floor slam, helping to tie the game at 15. He would later break the tie with an and-one, block a shot to set up a Notre Dame fast break for another score and, following a Ben Hansbrough steal, beat the defense down the floor for yet another driving layup to put his team up 24-17.

By halftime, Harangody had his most points (15) and rebounds (nine) in more than a month.

"To hit a couple early buckets was great for my confidence," he said. "Going into [last Saturday's] Marquette game, my confidence wasn't at that level. I feel right now that I started to get a little bit of swagger back that I had before the injury."

After playing 15-plus minutes in the first half, Harangody, still trying to get back to his usual conditioning level, played less than nine in the second half, but the Irish hadn't forgotten what they learned during his absence. Jackson, held scoreless in the first half, finished with 13, while Harangody posted his career average -- 20 and 10 -- as Notre Dame shot nearly 70 percent in the second half and maintained control the rest of the way.

Seton Hall's players -- less than 24 hours removed from nearly blowing a 29-point second-half lead against Providence -- looked visibly drained on defense in the second half. "This was the most tired I've seen our team the entire year. We just didn't have our legs," coach Bobby Gonzalez said. But Brey's plan against every opponent now is to wear it down, jokingly likening his team's new style to Chinese water torture.

"Psychologically, physically, you've got to take good shots because if you miss it, you've got to guard again for 35 seconds," he said.

Brey admits he's never before orchestrated such a drastic transformation of a team so late in the season. He had no choice. Even before Harangody's injury, the Irish were heading toward the wrong side of the bubble, which would have been a huge disappointment for this veteran team. Harangody and Jackson are part of a senior class that has now tied the school record for career wins (92) but would have been relegated to a second straight NIT trip.

Brey, who jokes that if he wrote a book it would be titled "My Life on the Bubble," is no longer worried about Sunday. He's focused on Thursday night's quarterfinal date with No. 2 seed Pittsburgh and relishing the fact his team has reinvented itself at just the right time.

"The show playing on Broadway right now is 'Slow Burn,'" he said giddily. "It will be back Thursday night and hopefully Friday and Saturday, too."

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