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March 13, 2008
A record-setting regular season has Notre Dame feeling confident about its chances to win its first Big East tournament title.
Looking to build on that success, the 14th-ranked Fighting Irish begin their postseason run against No. 25 Marquette in the quarterfinals on Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Notre Dame (24-6) put together one of the best campaigns in school history, finishing with the most regular-season victories in coach Mike Brey's eight seasons and the most by an Irish team since going 26-3 in 1973-74.
The Irish also enjoyed their best conference record since joining the Big East in 1994-95, going 14-4 and surpassing the 11 wins they had in 2000-01. Notre Dame finished tied with No. 13 Louisville for second, and clinched its second straight No. 3 seed for the tournament.
"This team has taken us into new territory," said Brey, who was named the Big East Coach of the Year for the second straight season.
Notre Dame has been idle since a 67-60 win at South Florida on Saturday. Luke Harangody scored 21 points, while Rob Kurz added 14 for the Irish, who closed their regular season by winning 11 of the last 13 games.
Zach Hillesland also scored 10 for the Irish, who squandered a 19-point lead before making four free throws in the final 23 seconds to seal the victory.
"I think we're playing like one of the best teams in the country right now. We feel that we have a lot of momentum," said Kurz, the team's lone senior.
"We know it's going to be a tough road to get to the championship game, but we feel like we're as good as any team in the league, and we're going to fight and leave it all on the floor."
The Irish are just 4-11 in the Big East tournament since 1996-97, and their run last season was short-lived after a heartbreaking 84-82 loss to then-No. 9 Georgetown in the semifinals.
They are hoping for an extended stay this time around behind Harangody, whose conference-leading 21.0 points per game helped him win Big East Player of the Year honors. The sophomore forward has been at his best over the last four games, averaging 26.3 points on 63.4 percent shooting.
Harangody, who totaled 31 points in two Big East tournament games, looks to lead the Irish against sixth-seeded Marquette (23-8). He has recorded double-doubles in each of his three games against the undersized Golden Eagles, averaging 23.0 points and 12.7 rebounds.
The home team won each game this season, with Marquette winning 92-66 on Jan. 12, and Notre Dame victorious 86-83 on Feb. 9.
Marquette, which has failed to advance past the quarterfinals in each of its two appearances since joining the conference in 2005, advanced with a 67-54 win over Seton Hall on Wednesday in the first round.
"We knew we were going to get their best shot, which we did," Golden Eagles coach Tom Crean said. "They had a great game plan and it took us a little while to settle into it. We showed incredible maturity in the second half as we continued to be in the attack mode."
Marquette shot only 34.4 percent (22-for-64) and missed 15 of its 35 free throws, but amassed a 56-37 edge in rebounds, grabbing 25 on the offensive end.
"The number one key was our ability to rebound the basketball and we did a fantastic job of that," Crean said. "We don't have a lot of size so we had to do it with heart."
McNeal, who leads the Golden Eagles with 13.8 points, has averaged 12.8 in five lifetime games against Notre Dame.
The winner of this game will play the No. 13 Louisville-Pittsburgh winner in the semifinals Friday.