By TOM COYNE
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SOUTH BEND —
Notre Dame was up by seven with 21 seconds to play against Marquette in the Big East tournament when Eric Atkins shot an air ball from the free-throw line. Coach Mike Brey laughed hard as Atkins got ready for the second shot, and then began shouting, “Bank it. Bank it.”
A smiling Atkins hit nothing but net on the next try. Brey has a way of making his players feel at ease, a manner that has helped the Fighting Irish post seven straight seasons of at least 20 wins for the first time in Notre Dame history. But it hasn’t led to a lot of success in recent years in the NCAA tournament, where the Irish have just two wins in their last five trips.
Brey blames himself, particularly for last season, when the Irish squandered a 10-point lead in the second half against Xavier.
“Through the summer I really kicked myself, saying I had us a little too uptight, especially when they made that run back on us,” Brey said Wednesday after practice. “So I’m very premeditated here on my demeanor and keeping them loose and I’m going to be loose and we’re going to be going for it.”
That’s been the trademark of Brey’s teams over the years during the regular season, playing loose and their ability to overcome adversity. They have adopted Brey’s demeanor of adjusting to whatever challenge comes.
The Irish open this year’s tournament Friday against Iowa State (22-11) in Dayton, Ohio.
Three years ago, leading scorer Luke Harangody injured his knee in February and the Irish scrapped their usual offense, switched to a more deliberate style and won six straight. Last season the Irish lost Tim Abromaitis early in the season and still managed to finish 22-12. This season appeared in jeopardy in mid-January when the Irish three out of four and lost starter Scott Martin, a sixth-year starter for the season, with a bad left knee.
“You can see how good of a coach he is when he loses one of his best players and still goes to the NCAA tournament. It’s incredible,” forward Jack Cooley said.
Cooley said the best example of Brey’s coaching style was when Notre Dame beat top-seed Louisville in five overtimes last month after Cooley and guard Jerian Grant, the top two scorers, fouled out. Brey, a three time Big East coach of the year and 2011 national coach of the year, was jumping around courtside, exhorting his team on, while Louisville coach Rick Pitino looked frustrated and at times angry as the Cardinals fell in what turned out to be their last loss of the season.
“Coach Brey was laughing, having a good time and fun and completely changed the game plan from when the game started in order to win that game,” Cooley said.
Garrick Sherman, who had played a total of 18 minutes the previous six games and didn’t play in regulation against Louisville, scored 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting to help lead the Irish to victory.
The play of Sherman and Tom Knight has been the biggest difference in the Irish since Martin went down, but everyone else stepped up their games.
“It’s really just coach giving you confidence,” Grant said. “He’s a real players coach. He’s a guy that lets you go out there and learn from your mistakes rather than teach you after the game. Guys have really benefited from it.”
Brey has his flashes of anger, but that seems to inspire his team as well. Against Pittsburgh, the Irish missed 18 of their first 19 shots and fell behind 19-3 when Brey got called for a technical for getting on an official when Brey thought the Irish were getting bumped on some of drives. The Irish finished the half on a 16-3 run and kept the momentum going in the second half, winning 51-42.
“They do react when I do snap,” Brey said. “I pick my spots. You can’t do it too much or it won’t work.”
His plan this week, though, is to focus on the positives. He plans to show the team highlights of their play in the Big East, when he says the Irish found another offensive gear, in hopes of keeping it going. Brey also plans to chat with Cooley, Grant and Atkins, reminding them to play fearless.
“I’m just going to tell them, ‘We’re here because of you. You’ve played great almost every night. Let’s have fun, let’s do it,’” he said.