Off the wall

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Last month, the Notre Dame men's basketball team was flat on its back, reaching up and raking dirt into its own postseason grave for the second season in a row.

Star forward Luke Harangody went down with a severely bruised knee against Seton Hall on Feb. 11 -- the start of a three-game slide that underscored a devastating stretch of seven losses in 10 outings.

Harangody's decorated career in a Fighting Irish uniform appeared to be finished; his team's hope of earning an NCAA tournament berth less likely than hearing: And the Oscar for best picture goes to … "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."

Like last season, when coach Mike Brey's squad squandered a solid start by dropping seven consecutive Big East Conference contests to eventually wash up on the littered shoreline of the National Invitation Tournament, the Notre Dame athletics office began frantically brainstorming creative ways to slap lipstick on what surely would be another disappointing NIT appearance.

At least Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center would host another game to make up for all the ones (and there were a lot) that featured plenty of empty seats.

"We were up against the wall," Brey said on Monday, just hours before his team (21-10, 10-8) boarded a plane bound for New York City and the league tourney at Madison Square Garden, where the No. 7 seed Irish will take on Seton Hall Wednesday in the second round.

The Irish weren't just up against it, their shoulders were wedged between the studs. Now Brey believes his team is a lock to be included in the 65-team field. A win Wednesday and there's no doubt.

Come again?

Just like with the Irish's retooled offense, to digest just how this surprising reality developed from a Grotto prayer just a few weeks ago to a stunning turnaround requires -- a lot like the team itself -- slowing things down.

Let's rewind.

Senior point guard Tory Jackson will be remembered for many things when his Cal Ripken Jr.-like run in South Bend (on Wednesday, he will tie an Irish record of 133 career games played) is over. But perhaps for the first time, at roughly 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 24, he officially took over this foundering bunch.

Hitting a fadeaway jumper at the halftime horn at home against then No. 12-ranked Pittsburgh, starting a 19-3 run that would impressively get the Irish off the schneid with the 15-point victory -- Jackson led the Irish to just their second win over a ranked opponent all season.

"We just adjusted," Jackson said. "We added some poise to our game. We have a lot of older guys who can handle it and could adjust. A lot of teams couldn't adjust this late in the season. It says a lot about us as a team."

Harangody watched from the bench for the third straight game as his teammates, including junior Tim Abromaitis (17 points), flawlessly executed a deliberate and patient style of offense to chew up the clock and find the open man, finding themselves and a new identity in the process.

"One of the biggest things is the guys who were coming off the bench at the beginning of the year, their confidence has been improving," Harangody said. "It's been fun to watch."

Harangody alone has been the face of the program, and rightfully so after being named the 2007-08 Big East Player of the Year and averaging more than 20 points per game the past two seasons. But without him and his 19 hoists each night out, bit players seized the opportunity to become better players -- big-time players.

Losers of five of six conference road tilts, the Irish then traveled to No. 11 Georgetown and thumped the Hoyas by 14 points. Senior guard Ben Hansbrough and Abromaitis led the way with 21 and 19 points, respectively. But it was junior forward Carleton Scott, a kid who briefly quit the team back in January, who injected a kind of electric athleticism that's been sorely missing with Harangody in the lineup. Scott finished with 17 and would sound off again to usher in March.

At home against Connecticut, Scott's timely 3-pointers en route to 14 points got Notre Dame out of a pair of double-digit-deficit jams to overtake the Huskies.

Brey dusted off an old-school defense that held UConn to 20 points below its season average. Without Harangody putting up shots early in a possession and then lumbering to get back on defense, the Irish worked the clock, capitalized and pressured the Huskies into a series of offensive seizures.

Finally ditching the street clothes, Harangody made a surprising return to the lineup in the regular-season finale at Marquette last week, seeing only 11 minutes of action as he tested his knee in a reserve role that is expected to continue the rest of the way.

Didn't matter. The Irish learned how to win without him and (quiet, whisper now) looked more dangerous without him.

Seated during the most crucial minutes of the year, Harangody watched as Scott drained the biggest shot of Notre Dame's season, a deep 3-pointer from the wing at the buzzer to send the game to overtime and collect his second consecutive double-double. The Irish held on in the extra period and, in Brey's mind, became a lock to reach the NCAA tournament.

Four up, four down to end the regular season -- the team's longest conference winning streak of the season. No team wants to play Notre Dame, a squad that renders previous game film useless.

"It's been a great run," Brey said. "I'm really proud of our group. I think we've been more mentally tough than at any other time in the season, and we've kind of made our own luck and made big plays and different guys have made them.

"You want to keep riding the momentum into New York. I feel good about our group. I'm not talking about any résumés, talk to me about New York City."

Cue Jay-Z and Alicia Keys.

"We can't get satisfied," Jackson said.

"We just need to not do anything different under the bright lights," Harangody added.

With the Irish reinvented and invigorated, it seems right now as if there's nothing they can't do. Especially fight.