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December 7, 2012

As a matter of fact

When Notre Dame defeated No. 1-ranked Syracuse last January, it marked the first time in 25 seasons that Irish had defeated the top-rated team in the country.

Notre Dame students stormed the court, setting off a wild celebration with the Irish basketball players.

Less than a year later, against the defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats, ranked No. 8 in the country last Thursday, the reaction from the student body - led by Manti Te’o and dozens of other football players - was similar.

The reaction by the Notre Dame basketball players was not.

“Our guys were a little bit like, ‘Why did they do that?’” said Mike Brey of his team’s reaction to the students charging the court following the 64-50 “upset” of John Calipari’s young Wildcats, who would fall again over the weekend against Baylor. “We expect to do well.

“I tried to put it in the context of everything that’s going on athletically here. The football guys were there. I said, ‘Our students just wanted to celebrate,’ and I thought it was awesome.

“Some people have been critical of it, but I loved it. I think I got our guys to like, ‘Fellas, calm down, let the kids have fun. Let the students have fun.’ They moved on quickly. They weren’t losing sleep over it, but they were shaking their heads.”

Basketball journalist Mike DeCourcy told Brey that as sixth-year senior Scott Martin exited the court, his body language was just a shake of the head short of disgust with the students’ reaction. Martin downplayed his reaction, but admitted that the team took the victory in stride.

“We didn’t look at it as an upset,” Martin said. “I just walked off and went back to the locker room. We expected to win that game, and when you expect it, you think you should win and you don’t want to storm the floor. Especially on this floor, at home and in front of this group, we expected to win the game. I don’t think we looked at it as anything that was that great of a surprise.

“But it’s fine. They’re having a good time. We’re just happy they’re coming to the games and having fun. It doesn’t hurt anybody. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s a little bigger than us.”

Indeed, there is a certain euphoria on the Notre Dame campus these days as the football program sits atop the college football world as the No. 1-ranked team in the country with a date set (Jan. 7) to play Alabama for the national title.

“They just stormed the court because it was fun and an accumulation of how well sports have been going here lately,” said senior Jack Cooley. “It was a big night. We had new uniforms on, it was a blackout, everybody got t-shirts, they made the student section for the first time standing only in the front…

“There were so many things, it’s understandable that they did that. We knew we were going to win that game, so in those terms it wasn’t really an upset to storm the court. But I don’t have any problem with it. They’re just having fun. It’s not like anybody got hurt or anything bad happened.”

Junior Eric Atkins, who helped orchestrate last year’s upset victory over Syracuse, also saw both ends of the spectrum.

“I don’t think we liked it as much because we wanted to recognize the win as just another win for us,” Atkins said. “Especially at home, we expect to win every single game. Last year when we beat Syracuse, we were just coming off of two losses. That’s understandable. This one against Kentucky, we really expected to win, so it was kind of a weird feeling.

“But I don’t blame any of their excitement. I could feel the energy in the building with all the football players being there, with Manti being there in the front row. So I kind of understood why they did it. It’s good for us. I’m fine with it.”

Brey looks at the players’ reaction to the excessive celebration as another step in developing a championship-level program.

“We would have been extremely disappointed if we had lost,” said Brey, whose squad (7-1) started the week ranked No. 22 in the AP poll. “They felt very confident and should have been given our experience, a young (Kentucky team) on the road, and us being hungry for a marquee win after letting one slip away in New York.

“So they took it very matter of fact. They weren’t jumping around in there. They were pleased with their business-like delivery. What I’ve loved about this group and our program is when the lights have been bright in this building, we’ve delivered. I’m really proud of that, and this group is mature about it.”

Besides, Brey didn’t feel he was in a position to stem the tide, so to speak, of the Notre Dame football players charging the court.

“I’ll be darned if any usher or me is going to stop Manti and the defensive line from charging the floor,” Brey laughed. “When you see our defensive line in their three-point stances and the clock is ticking down, I’ll be darned if I’m getting anywhere close to those guys.”


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