New York, NY – For the fourth straight season the sixth-seed Notre Dame Fighting Irish will play in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament when they clash with the second-seed Louisville Cardinals on Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
Whichever team comes out on top of this contest will advance to Saturday's championship game to take on either top-seed Georgetown or fifth-seed Syracuse.
Led yet again by hot shooting from Pat Connaughton, the Irish earned a 73-65 win over Marquette in the nightcap of the quarterfinal round on Thursday. The Irish improved to 25-8 overall with win, which was their third in the last four games. Though the Irish have made it to the semifinals in each of the last four seasons they have yet to get past this round since joining the conference in 1995.
While Georgetown has gotten the headlines, Louisville has been playing some of its best basketball of the season down the stretch and it continued in Thursday's quarterfinal. The Cardinals posted a 74-55 rout of Villanova for their 11th win in the last 12 contests. Nine of those wins have come by at least 14 points for Louisville which is trying to defend its tournament title from a year ago.
The only loss that Notre Dame has suffered in the last four outings actually came against Louisville in a 73-57 rout on the road. That contest was much different than the five-overtime thriller the two teams were a part of in South Bend on Feb. 4 when the Irish came out on top.
First-team All-Big East selection Jack Cooley (6 points, 6 rebounds) struggled yet again for the Irish but it didn't matter as his supporting cast came up big. Connaughton hit 6-of-10 shots from beyond the arc for a game-high 18 points, while Garrick Sherman netted 16 points to go with six rebounds off the bench for the Irish.
Cooley (13.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg) was a double-double machine all season but has struggled in the tourney as he had just two points in the team's second round matchup against Rutgers. Connaughton (9.0 ppg) has picked up the slack scoring a combined 39 points in the two games, while hitting 12-of-18 shots from beyond the arc. Jerian Grant (13.4 ppg, 5.7 apg) is a strong scorer and distributor as well and had 17 points and six assists for the Irish on Thursday. Eric Atkins (11.5 ppg, 5.8 apg) can also dish the rock for the Irish who are extremely efficient on the offensive end, shooting 46.6 percent from the field, while assisting on 17.2 field goals a contest.
Louisville played its patented high-pressure defense and Russ Smith exploded on offense in the win over Villanova. The Cardinals forced 25 turnovers, 18 of which came in the first half, which led to 27 points, as Smith knocked in a game-high 28 points.
Creating havoc for opposing teams has been the calling card for Rick Pitino's squad this season. The Cardinals lead the Big East and are in the top five teams in the nation in steals (10.7 spg). When foes are actually able to hold onto the ball they are scoring just 59.4 points per game and shooting 38.8 percent from the field. Smith (18.2 ppg) has no fear as a scorer and will take shots from anywhere on the floor. Gorgui Dieng (10.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 2.5 bpg) is one of the best big men in the conference with his ability to crash the boards and protect the rim. Peyton Siva (9.9 ppg, 5.8 apg) runs the point for the Cardinals while Chane Behanan (10.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Wayne Blackshear (8.2 ppg) and Luke Hancock (7.3 ppg) add even more depth.