INDIANAPOLIS - By the end the drama had dissipated. The final buzzer merely confirmed what the previous 40 minutes of basketball had amply illustrated - that this court, this game, this day, belonged to Notre Dame.
Yesterday's 68-60 victory over Illinois in the second round of the West Regional at the RCA Dome earned the Irish their first Sweet 16 trip since 1987.
Though the game was a distinct tale of two halves, the futility carried through from beginning to end for the Illini (25-7).
The fifth-seeded Irish (24-9) won in large part by doing what they do best: score. But that wasn't all. Notre Dame went through several incarnations in a mere 40 minutes, opening with a shower of shots and closing with a bucket of stops.
Notre Dame shot a blistering 69 percent from beyond the arc in the first half, with 11 three-pointers to help build a 47-34 halftime lead. Senior Dan Miller, a former Maryland player, was 5-for-5 on threes in the first half.
The Irish cooled off considerably in the second half, hitting just two of eight three-pointers, but No. 4 seed Illinois was unable to take advantage, shooting just 35 percent from the floor, 13 points below its regular-season figure.
"In the first half we didn't defend them the way we needed to," Illinois coach Bill Self said. "In the second half we did a better job of defending them, but we couldn't get the shots we needed."
Senior Brian Cook led the Illini with 19 points and 16 rebounds, but he shot just 6-for-23, held in check by the Irish defensive trio of Jordan Cornette, Torin Francis and Tom Timmermans.
"I think they thought they could dominate inside very easily," Cornette said. "People have given us flack for being soft inside, but Torin and Tom and I were very set on changing those beliefs."
The rest of Illinois' offense couldn't compensate.
Dee Brown, with 14 points, was Illinois' only other double-figure scorer. But he was 5-for-14 from the floor, missing several open shots, including a layup with 31 seconds to play and the Illini down by six.
Deron Williams scored just five points, as did fellow freshman James Augustine, and fired off an airball in the game's final minute.
"One of our Achilles' heels that we have had all season has been our perimeter shooting," Self said.
The Irish suffered no such trouble.
Augustine beat freshman counterpart Francis on the opening tip. It was the only advantage the Illini would enjoy all day.
Sixty-eight seconds later, Miller would pull up and connect from the left wing, giving Notre Dame a 3-0 lead. Thirty seconds after that, Irish senior Matt Carroll repeated the feat from the right side. Francis added two free throws before the Illini scored their first points, forcing them to play from behind the rest of the way.
Miller finished with a game-high 23 points. Francis shot just 1-for-9 from the floor, but he had a team-high 14 rebounds and did a commendable defensive job on Cook.
Carroll managed 11 points, playing 31 minutes and shooting 4-for-9 on a sprained ankle. And though Chris Thomas scored 17 points with a game-high five assists, his biggest contribution was in controlling the tempo of the game, something Brown couldn't do for the Illini.
The Irish even beat Illinois at its own game, coming up with 13 fast-break points while allowing only three.
"Notre Dame pushed the ball, and they had us on our heels most of the first half. They shot incredible in the first half," Cook said.
Carroll concentrated on feeding the fire.
"I couldn't do much as far as my mobility, but seeing how Dan and everybody was playing I was trying to get them the ball," he said.
In the end the difference was defense, which was somewhat surprising given how Notre Dame struggled to stop people in the final few weeks of the Big East season.
"Our defense bailed us out," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who accepted the victory as a most welcome 44th birthday present. "When we weren't just shooting the lights out like we were in the first half, we were able to rely on our defense to get us some stops."
This was just the sort of effort Notre Dame had envisioned.
"Last night, everybody was like, 'Man, I can't sleep.' Guys were dreaming big," Thomas said. "We've never been so excited to play."
Avani Patel is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune publishing newspaper.
NOTRE DAME-Miller 9-15 0-0 23, Francis 1-9 3-3 5, Timmermans 1-1 0-0 2, Ch.Thomas 7-19 0-0 17, Carroll 4-9 0-0 11, Quinn 2-3 2-2 8, Cornette 1-5 0-0 2. Totals 25-61 5-5 68. ILLINOIS-Augustine 2-7 1-2 5, Powell 1-3 0-0 2, Cook 6-23 7-8 19, Williams 2-5 0-0 5, Brown 5-14 3-6 14, Head 2-3 0-0 5, Harrington 3-5 0-0 8, Smith 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 22-63 11-16 60. Halftime-Notre Dame, 47-34. 3-point goals-Notre Dame 13-24 (Miller 5-7, Ch.Thomas 3-5, Carroll 3-6, Quinn 2-3, Cornette 0-3), Illinois 5-17 (Harrington 2-4, Head 1-2, Williams 1-2, Brown 1-3, Powell 0-2, Cook 0-4). Fouled out-None. Rebounds-Notre Dame 37 (Francis 14), Illinois 41 (Cook 16). Assists-Notre Dame 12 (Ch.Thomas 5), Illinois 12 (Brown, Williams 3). Total fouls-Notre Dame 13, Illinois 10.