PHILADELPHIA – After his team beat Syracuse, handing the Orange their first loss of the season, Mike Brey challenged his players to believe in the unbelievable – that Notre Dame, a team without its best scorer and relying on a freshman and sophomore in the backcourt, wasn’t just a fluke; that the Irish were something special.
And those crazy kids bought it.
They looked around the room, at a ragtag group that counted just two guys with any significant experience; that in November lost by 20 to Gonzaga and in December by 7 to Maryland, and they gobbled the bait like greedy guppies.
Sometimes seeing is not believing.
Sometimes you believe and then you see.
The Irish have risen from their early wake to storm to a second-place spot in the Big East, using that Syracuse victory as a catapult to what is now an eight-game win streak after Notre Dame rallied to beat Villanova, 74-70 in overtime.
Notre Dame was picked to finish ninth in the league. And that was before Tim Abromaitis blew out his knee. Yet with the Big East tournament a little more than two weeks away, the Irish are sitting extremely pretty at 11-3, tied with Marquette but owning the tiebreaker after a 76-59 spanking of the Golden Eagles on Feb. 4.
“We do believe we’re special, we really do,’’ said Pat Connaughton, a freshman who throws 94-mph fastballs for the Irish baseball team and drained seven 3-pointers for the hoops squad against Villanova.
And in this particular Big East season, a little self-confidence can go a long way. On Saturday, the Irish needed to come from a 16-point halftime deficit and a first-half hole that once ballooned as large as 20 to beat a team that has won just four league games this season and was down two starters.
Earlier in the day, Louisville, which took Syracuse to the brink on Monday and is 7-1 in its past eight games, needed overtime to dispatch DePaul, a team that has won just twice in 2012.
Toss aside Syracuse at the top and the difference between 2 and 16 is as thin and flimsy as a Jay Wright pocket square.
Connecticut last season became the first team to win five games in five nights to capture the league tournament.
Who’d take the odds that lightning couldn’t strike again this year?
“Confidence is the difference-maker in this league,’’ Brey said. “It’s razor-thin stuff.’’
No one would call Notre Dame a great team. The Irish’s margin of victory is a flimsy 4.6 points. They don’t rebound particularly well. Their players are not more talented than Villanova’s. If anything, the Wildcats hold the advantage in beefy player resumes.
Yet there was Notre Dame, down 20, getting smoked on the boards, shooting terribly and looking like it was up 20. No hung heads, no grimaces or pouting.
Maybe, in part, at least, is because the Irish figure they’ve been playing with house money all season. Abromaitis was supposed to be the guy. The senior averaged 15.4 points a year ago and would, with Jack Cooley, give Notre Dame a formidable inside-outside presence.
When he was injured, there wasn’t so much dejection as there was rampant confusion.
“We practiced with him all summer and all fall,’’ Connaughton said. “And then when we had to play without him, we were like, ‘Oh, am I supposed to shoot this?’’
Brey had been through it before, forced to regroup after losing Luke Harangody two years ago, which helped him at least to keep his head on straight.
His players relied on him, but more they relied on each other. These guys genuinely like one another, Connaughton said, and that comfort helped fuel a trust on the court.
It was evident against the Wildcats. While the inexperienced Cats were blowing their lead, jacking up bad shots and making few of them – Villanova made all of just four field goals in the second half before Maurice Sutton somehow tipped in a fifth at the regulation buzzer to force overtime – the Irish were passing and searching, giving up one OK look for a better one. They used a late 13-4 run to send the game into overtime.
And then, with the Irish up 68-65 in the final minute of overtime, Scott Martin found Connaughton, who sunk his seventh from beyond the arc to cement the victory.
Notre Dame made 25 field goals in the game.
The Irish dished out assists on 17 of them.
“It’s not just the margin for error that’s so small; it’s the margin for success,’’ Wright said. “If you look at their numbers, they’re not that impressive, but what is impressive is how they execute. They know their roles extremely well and they know who they are and who makes the plays. They believe in what they’re doing.’’
And these days believing is carrying the day.
“Jeremy Lin and the Irish,’’ Brey laughed. “Believe it."