NEW YORK -- Notre Dame easily handled Pitt without its leading scorer two weeks ago. Now the Fighting Irish will face the Panthers with their superstar looking like he's 100 percent healthy again.
Luke Harangody, the Big East Conference's leading scorer who has been slowed by a bone bruise in his knee, scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds Wednesday to lead No. 7 seed Notre Dame past No. 10 seed Seton Hall, 68-56, in a Big East tournament second-round game at Madison Square Garden.
The Irish will face No. 2 seed Pitt at 7 p.m. today in a quarterfinal-round game.
Harangody missed the first game against Pitt, but the Irish handed the Panthers one of their worst losses of the season, 68-53. Notre Dame had an easy time with Pitt because its shooters were able to get open for uncontested shots. The Irish shot 50 percent from the field, 56 percent from 3-point range. They were 10 for 18 from behind the arc and made 10 of their first 13 before cooling off late.
• Game: No. 16 Pitt (24-7) vs. Notre Dame (22-10), 7 p.m. today, Madison Square Garden, New York.
• TV, radio, Internet: ESPN, WWSW-FM (94.5), WBGG-AM (970), www.pittsburghpanthers.com.
• Pitt: Coming off 83-54 victory against Rutgers in regular-season finale. ... No. 2 seed in conference tournament for second year in a row. ... Has won eight of past nine. ... Sophomore G Ashton Gibbs (16.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg) was named the conference's most improved player and second-team all-conference. ... Junior G Brad Wanamaker (12.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg) finished the regular season fourth in the conference with 146 assists.
• Notre Dame: Coming off 68-56 victory against Seton Hall in second-round tournament game. ... Defeated Pitt in only regular-season meeting two weeks ago at Notre Dame. ... Senior Luke Harangody led the Big East in scoring. ... Has won five in a row for the longest winning streak since the 2007-08 season. ... Improved to 5-14 in Big East tournament games.
• Hidden stat: Pitt is 24-10 at Madison Square Garden since 2000-01 season.
A healthy Harangody makes the Irish doubly difficult to defend. Notre Dame's guards did not shoot well against Seton Hall, going only 3 for 12 from 3-point range. But the offense got enough easy points inside with Harangody scoring 15 of his 20 points in the first half. All of them came in the final 14:30 after starting the game on the bench.
"He's coming along really well," senior point guard Tory Jackson said. "The scoring could have been more balanced. Just imagine what we would be like if we made some of our outside shots."
That's a scary prospect for the Panthers, who had a hard enough time matching up with the Irish the first time around.
Harangody returned to play in the regular-season finale against Marquette after missing five consecutive games, but he only scored five points in 11 minutes. Against Seton Hall he did all of his damage in 24 minutes. He was 9 for 15 from the field.
"He was ready to go," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "We're going to need that. We didn't really need it as much [against Marquette]. And maybe he wasn't quite ready to do all that after just a practice and a half. But we had three good practices [before the Seton Hall game], and I think he's back in a rhythm at a very key time."
Harangody said the ability to practice for three consecutive days helped him get back into the flow after his long period of inactivity when the bone bruise was healing.
"The last couple of days of practice have been great for me, just to get back in the flow, kind of get my conditioning back," Harangody said. "It hit a couple of early buckets. That was great for my confidence. Going into this game my confidence was at the level it needed to be. I feel right now that I started to get a little bit of a swagger back that I had before the injury. I feel great with the guys out there."
Harangody does not believe playing on consecutive nights will limit his effectiveness against Pitt.
"I feel pretty good," he said. "I think Coach was smart about how many minutes he played me. My body feels great right now. I think every day it's going to get better. I'm just going to ride the momentum off today into tomorrow."
Notre Dame has been riding the momentum off that Pitt victory two weeks ago. The Irish own the longest current winning streak in the conference at five games. The streak started against the Panthers and continued against Georgetown, Connecticut and Marquette before Seton Hall.
When Notre Dame was 6-8 in the Big East and without the services of Harangody, Brey decided to change the way his team played. Instead of the high-scoring, up-tempo team he coached early in the season and his previous years, Brey instructed his players to slow down and play a more patient offensive game. Now the once-explosive Irish are winning low-scoring games.
"We prided ourselves in being one of the highest-scoring teams, a real fun team to watch when we're firing and running," Brey said. "Those days are over. It was something we had to do to survive [without Harangody]. Our backs were against the wall."
It has been a winning formula. Notre Dame had a reputation for being a deficient defensive team under Brey, but since the new pace was installed the Irish have given up 54 points or fewer in four of the five games.
Pitt got a taste of that stingy defense firsthand. The Irish held the Panthers to their third-lowest scoring output of the season.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com . First Published March 11, 2010 5:00 AM