INTERVIEW WITH ERIC ATKINS
INTERVIEW WITH MIKE BREY
NEW YORK (AP)—Notre Dame is in the semifinals of the Big East Championship Presented by American Eagle Outfitters for the fifth time. The Fighting Irish are hoping they can finally get to the championship game.
Eric Atkins scored all six of his points in overtime to lead No. 23 Notre Dame to a 57-53 victory over South Florida on Thursday night.
The third-seeded Fighting Irish (22-10) will play seventh-seeded Louisville in the semifinals on Friday night at Madison Square Garden. The Cardinals (24-9) beat second-seeded and ninth-ranked Marquette 84-71.
It will be a rematch of last year’s semifinal that saw Louisville advance to the championship game, where it lost to Connecticut.
“I really believe this group, of all my teams, is most equipped to get to Saturday night,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “It’s something we talked about in our program for a while. It’s the next step. I think our program has been extremely consistent and solid in the Big East, but playing on Saturday would mean a lot, and I think this group has really digested it. Of course, we played the same guys who stopped us from getting there last year in Louisville.”
Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant both had 12 points for Notre Dame in the quarterfinal victory that was about as far from an offensive masterpiece as two teams can get.
The game was expected to be a defensive one and it lived up to the billing. The teams combined for a total of seven points over the final 6 minutes of regulation. They picked up the pace in the 5-minute overtime with Notre Dame outscoring the Bulls 12-8.
Neither team broke 40 percent from the field for the game. In the second half, Notre Dame was 4 of 20 from the field and South Florida 8 of 26.
“I’m proud of our group,” Brey said. “That’s a little bit how we played all year, like that’s a little bit of when it gets down to those last 2 or 3 minutes of really believing. You know, I hadn’t really seen that much the last three games. During our nine-game run we stole many like that, and it’s nice to see. Maybe we can keep that recipe going.”
Victor Rudd Jr. had 16 points for the sixth-seeded Bulls (20-13), who advanced to the quarterfinals with a win over Villanova, the farthest they have ever gone in the conference tournament.
“I’m real proud of my guys. That was a heck of a game,” said South Florida’s Stan Heath who was selected the conference’s Coach of the Year after taking the Bulls from a 14th pick in the preseason poll to a 12-6 record “We had it. I thought we just let it slip away in regulation and made some mistakes and didn’t finish some plays that we should have finished.
“But I thought we played hard. We were much better on the defensive end the second half. We did a good job sharing the ball and taking care of it and getting some quality shots and just came up a little bit short. That’s a very good basketball team at Notre Dame. Hats off for the way they found a way to win. Hopefully, we erased any doubt in terms of what kind of basketball team we are and proved that we belong. We definitely belong.”
Anthony Collins, who finished with 13 points and seven assists, gave South Florida a 45-42 lead with 2:44 left in regulation when he scored on a drive to the basket.
Grant made two free throws with 38 seconds left to bring the Fighting Irish within a point. It appeared South Florida would put the game away when Jawanza Poland took a long inbounds pass but he missed a layup. He was able to corral the loose ball and was fouled with 30 seconds left only to miss the front end of a 1-and-1.
“I guess you could say it slipped,” Poland said. “I had a wide-open layup. I should have made it, but I didn’t.
“I put it out (of my head), I just missed the free throw. It’s hard. I could have put my team up with (30) seconds to go.”
Connaughton made the first of two free throws with 28 seconds left to tie it. Collins drove the lane but lost the ball. In the ensuing scramble a jump ball was called with 0.6 seconds left and the possession arrow belonged to South Florida. The Bulls inbounded the ball under the basket but a lob was knocked away at the buzzer.
Connaughton made two free throws with 3:53 left in overtime to give Notre Dame the lead for good at 49-48. The Irish extended the lead to 54-50 on a 3 by Atkins with 29 seconds to go.
After a turnover by each team, Toarlyn Fitzpatrick hit a 3 for South Florida with 2.5 seconds left. Atkins made one of two free throws with 1.6 seconds left and after another Bulls turnover, Connaughton made two free throws with one-tenth of a second left for the final margin.
“I tried to be confident all throughout the game. I really didn’t hit anything all game, though,” said Atkins, who came in averaging 12.4 points. “But Coach gives me the confidence to just keep playing, keep shooting. You know, I got the balls thrown to me, and I just knocked it down. `’
This was the 10th straight game South Florida held an opponent under 60 points. The Bulls set a conference record this season by allowing 56.9 points per game.
“Well, ugly is in the eye of the beholder. I love the way we play,” Heath said. “I’d like to get a little bit more maybe transition baskets and get a little bit more penetration and kick and some things like that. But I have no problems. I don’t apologize at all for how hard my guys defend. I’m proud of it. I think there’s probably 90 percent of the coaches that would love to do the same thing. So there’s no apologies.”
South Florida made eight of its first 10 shots from the field—including 4 of 5 3-point attempts—and took a 20-8 lead on a 3-pointer by Collins. The Bulls then went stone cold, missing their next nine shots as the Fighting Irish went on an 18-0 run to go up 26-20 with 3:54 left in the half. Notre Dame led 28-26 at halftime.