Luke Harangody’s injured knee kept him on the sidelines when Pittsburgh visited South Bend two weeks ago. At the time, Notre Dame appeared headed for the NIT.
Five consecutive wins later, the Fighting Irish are planning on a different postseason destination.
A late-season surge has Notre Dame seeking an NCAA tournament bid, and another victory over the No. 16 Panthers in Thursday night’s Big East quarterfinal at Madison Square Garden would almost certainly make that possible.
Pittsburgh (24-7) had won five straight games and was ranked 12th heading into the Joyce Center on Feb. 24. The Panthers appeared to have a great opportunity to extend their streak with the Irish having lost three straight and Harangody missing a third consecutive contest.
Instead, Notre Dame (22-10) got a sorely-needed victory. Tim Abromaitis had 17 points to lead four Irish scorers in double figures in a 68-53 rout of the Panthers.
The wins haven’t stopped since.
The Irish beat Georgetown and Connecticut with Harangody sidelined, survived overtime at Marquette to win their regular-season finale with Harangody playing limited minutes, and got their star back to full speed to start the Big East tournament on Wednesday. The senior forward had 20 points and 10 rebounds off the bench in a 68-56 victory over Seton Hall.
“The microwave was ready to go tonight,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “I think he is back in his rhythm at a very key time.”
While knocking off the Pirates may have been enough to put the Irish in the field of 65, beating Pitt again would almost guarantee them their first trip to the NCAAs since 2008.
Harangody has averaged 25.0 points and 11.5 rebounds in two career games against the Panthers.
Pitt didn’t let the loss to Notre Dame linger, winning three straight to close the regular season. After needing an Ashton Gibbs buzzer-beater to survive Providence at home last Thursday, the Panthers took apart Rutgers 83-54 on Saturday.
Picked to finish ninth in the Big East, Pitt instead heads to Manhattan seeded second.
“This team has improved more than any team in the country - more than any team probably anyone has ever seen - from November until March, so why stop now?” coach Jamie Dixon said. “I don’t think they were picked second by anybody.”
The Panthers should feel good about their chances at MSG, where they’re 24-10 since the 2001-02 season.
Pitt has played in seven of the last nine Big East championship games, though its recent history as the No. 2 seed isn’t good. Dixon’s team was bounced in the quarterfinals by seventh-seeded West Virginia last season.
Gilbert Brown, who scored 19 points in the rout of Rutgers, doesn’t foresee another early exit - especially with the Panthers sharing the basketball. Pitt has averaged 18.2 assists in its past nine games, and is 13-0 when it records 18 or more.
“We’re coming together and at this point in the season our play just shows everyone that we’re a unit,” Brown said. “Recently, we’ve been moving the ball well, and proof of that is in our assist to field goal ratio.”
The Panthers only had 13 assists last month against the Irish, and Gibbs (16.2 points per game) - the Big East’s Most Improved Player - was held to 11 points. Pitt is 20-2 when Gibbs scores 12 or more.
The winner will face either West Virginia or Cincinnati in Friday’s second semifinal.