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February 14, 2013

20th win has Irish back in race

After taking part in his seventh overtime in the last four games, including a 3-0 record in games with extra sessions, Mike Brey couldn't take it all in at once.

"I heard Syracuse lost," said Brey following Notre Dame's 82-78 overtime victory over DePaul Wednesday night at Purcell Pavilion.

"When we lost three out of four and (Scott) Martin went down, the regular-season title was the furthest thing from my mind, and I don't even want to think about that right now…Now, double bye? I will think about that a little bit. We're kind of in that territory."

A top four finish in the Big East would give Brey his much-coveted double bye in the Big East tournament, and with Syracuse's 66-58 loss to Connecticut, the 8-4 Irish are one-half game behind the Orange, Georgetown and Marquette, who all have 8-3 records heading into the weekend.

It's all a bit much to compute with the Irish playing an average of 48.7 minutes per game over the last four. But after falling to 3-3 in league play as Martin finally succumbed to a knee injury, Notre Dame - 20-5 overall - has won five of its last six to remain in the running for the Big East title.

Of course, with road trips ahead at Providence, Pittsburgh, Marquette and Louisville, Notre Dame's odds of winning the Big East remain fairly long. But by reaching the 20-win mark Wednesday night, the Irish not only are a couple of victories away from assuring themselves a spot in the NCAA tournament, but have now etched themselves in the Notre Dame record book.

Brey became the first coach in Irish men's basketball history to win at least 20 games seven seasons in a row.

"I'm really proud of that," said Brey, whose 35 Big East wins since the 2010-11 campaign are second most in the league to Jim Boeheim's 37. "For our program to have that, I think that's really a sign of our consistency."

That breaks the record set by Richard "Digger" Phelps, who had six straight 20-victory seasons from 1975-76 -- when the Adrian Dantley-led Irish were 23-6 -- through the 1980-81 season -- when the Kelly Tripucka-Orlando Woolridge-Tracy Jackson-led Irish also finished 23-6.

Since the 2006-07 season, when the streak of 20-victory seasons began, the Irish are 162-67 overall (.707) and 78-40 in the Big East (.661).

"I talked with the staff in the pre-season and said, 'You know, if we get to that, to have seven in a row and have the record, that's something I'm really proud of,'" Brey said. "I think it's been kind of machine-like consistency, quite frankly."

Indeed, Notre Dame has been in full grind mode, particularly against DePaul (10-14, 1-10), which has enough athleticism and outside firepower to take the Irish into overtime, but not enough discipline and experience to finish the deal.

Shooting below 30 percent from three-point range when the Irish came to Chicago to play the Blue Demons on Feb. 2, DePaul suddenly has found the range from long distance. In DePaul's last three games against Villanova, Marquette and Notre Dame Wednesday night, the Blue Demons have nailed a remarkable 45.6 percent (26-of-57) of their three-point attempts.

They were 9-of-21 against Villanova, 9-of-20 versus Marquette, and 8-of-16 Wednesday night against the Irish. Fortunately for the Irish, they forged an advantage on the backboards (a 44-to-25 rebounding advantage) and at the free-throw line (21-of-28 to DePaul's 4-of-7) to help compensate for the Blue Demons' hot shooting and Notre Dame's 15-to-7 turnover deficit.

"We're 8-4 with a very fine line and I think that's how we'll live the rest of the way," Brey said. "That's just who we are.

"Certainly, we aspire to do more things in March. But man, you've got to grind this thing in January and February especially, and I really like how we've done that."

- Legion in absentia: Notre Dame's student body, known as the Leprechaun Legion, is a fair weather bunch when it comes to men's basketball. They were out in full force Saturday night for the memorable five-overtime victory over Louisville.

After the win over the Cardinals, Brey implored the students to come out again four nights later for the DePaul game. The plea fell upon deaf ears as only a smattering of students attended Wednesday night, most of which were part of the Notre Dame pep band.

"I feel like going to the dorms and chasing some of my students down," Brey said. "I thought we deserved a little more from our Legion given the show we gave them Saturday night.

"Having said that, the group that we had here tonight was really good and gave us energy just like the other night. But we've got two home games left against Cinci and St. John's, and we're going to need our crowd, we're going to need our sixth man. It really does help us."

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