(MCT) — SOUTH BEND, Ind. — During a timeout with 33 seconds left in regulation in Notre Dame’s 82-78 overtime victory over DePaul on Wednesday night, coach Mike Brey noticed an unwelcome guest in the Irish huddle: self-pity.
It took a seat between fatigue and frustration.
“Our guys were making facial expressions about missed free throws or complaining they got fouled,” Brey said.
That cued Brey quickly to channel the most fun coach to play for in America. During Saturday’s epic five-overtime victory over Louisville, Brey kept players loose between extra sessions by shadow-boxing or making vocal jabs. The more Brey relaxes his players, the better they play. Ask junior guard Jerian Grant, emerging as Notre Dame’s go-to scorer.
“Guys aren’t scared to make a play or take a big shot,” said Grant, who scored a team-high 21. “Just having a coach that stays positive and has so much confidence in you to do what you’ve been doing for 15 years of your life makes a huge difference.”
Not every coach in a profession full of grumpy old men can flip that fun-loving switch, but Brey finds it automatically in the toughest of times. After DePaul erased a 14-point deficit to take Notre Dame into overtime for the third time in four games, it qualified as one of those times.
“I tried to kick into that gear when I saw how frustrated we were getting,” Brey said. “My theme was we’ve been here before not, ‘Oh my gosh, we had a (14)-point lead.’ I was like, ‘Fellas, let’s have fun with it again, what the heck. ...”“
Brey paused, grinning.
“Then I had my fingers crossed behind my back,” he cracked.
Luck had less to do with Brey becoming the first Notre Dame coach to win 20 games in seven straight seasons than skill. Role players come and go and Notre Dame stays near the top of one of the country’s toughest conferences. His seven-year run represents the type of consistency every coach seeks, from first-year guys such as John Groce at Illinois to struggling veterans like Oliver Purnell at DePaul.
“I’m really proud of that,” said Brey, who hasn’t been to a Sweet 16 since 2003. “It has been kind of machine-like consistency. Certainly we aspire to do more things in March but you have to grind this thing in January and February especially. I really like how we’ve done that.”
They did it against DePaul despite experiencing the inevitable letdown four days after the longest regular-season game in Big East history. Notre Dame players can’t log many more overtime minutes without applying for a union card. As exhausted mentally as physically, forward Jack Cooley thought his teammates had flushed the Louisville victory until he glanced at the Jumbotron before the game.
“They had a montage of highlights from that game,” Cooley said. “Seeing that made it harder to put it behind us.”
To guard against a lapse, Brey went to the bench more than usual for what seemed like shift changes more than substitutions. He shuttled in players to keep the energy high in a building that lacked it. On Ash Wednesday, Notre Dame students apparently gave up supporting the 21st-ranked Irish for Lent. Maybe the pews were crowded on campus. Purcell Pavilion wasn’t; the announced attendance of 8,554 was hard to believe.
On press row, former Notre Dame coach and ESPN analyst Digger Phelps bemoaned how times have changed. Phelps recalled when the rivalry between the two Catholic schools generated enough of a buzz in a packed arena that Notre Dame students would chant to the couple of hundred loud DePaul students who made the 100-mile trip east: “Notre Dame rejects!”
Those days are long gone. Truth is, DePaul basketball barely excites enough people to bother going from Lincoln Park to Rosemont. Why would anybody expect students to cross a state line?
Purnell has a history of turning around programs beginning in his third year. Nothing so far in a season that could be ticketed for 20 losses has indicated Purnell’s history will repeat itself at DePaul. The most promising development: A college basketball source who spoke with DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto said the school eyes a 10,000-seat arena near McCormick Place.
Progress on the court has been harder to measure. DePaul now has lost to 40 straight ranked opponents. Somewhere, Mark Aguirre sighs.
DePaul squandered chances. The Demons went nearly five minutes without a field goal after taking a 63-60 lead with 6:45 left. With 18.3 seconds left in overtime, James Crockett drove the lane but the ball bounced off his knee out of bounds, and the Demons’ chance for a second Big East victory went with it.
“Encouraged but not happy,” Purnell said.
Under Brey, nobody beats Notre Dame at happy.