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Heartbreaker in Greensboro: Xavier 67, Notre Dame 63

Mar 17, 2012, 3:05 AM EDT

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There’s really no other way to describe it. The calendar had flipped. It was officially St. Patrick’s Day and it felt like the stars were aligning for Notre Dame to play on Sunday for a shot at next weekend’s Sweet 16.

Instead, the Fighting Irish return to South Bend following a 67-63 second round loss to Xavier.

With just two seconds remaining, Eric Atkins looked to tie the game at the free throw line, but Jerian Grant was called for a lane violation on the front end of a one-and-one.

Possession to Xavier. Foul on Pat Connaughton. Two Musketeer free throws. Game over. Devastation for the Irish.

Notre Dame led by 10 with 12:22 to play. The Irish shot just 4-for-9 from the free throw line. Not to mention, even if the lane violation had not been called, Atkins would have had to hit his second free throw, just to tie the game and hopefully force overtime.

But if you’re a fan of the blue & gold, there’s no doubt the game left you shaking your head, asking yourself, “Why?” and “What if…?”

Watching Lehigh knock off Duke earlier in the night, you got the sense that if Notre Dame had won tonight, a Sweet 16 spot was there for the taking. Not that anyone should look past the Mountain Hawks, but a game against the Patriot League champion certainly seemed like a more favorable situation for Notre Dame than a battle with the Blue Devils, just 55 miles from their Durham campus.

This was going to be the year the Irish got past the postseason struggles.

Instead, it’s a disheartening defeat that ends an otherwise memorable season on a sour note. Notre Dame won nine straight BIG EAST games. The Fighting Irish knocked off #1 Syracuse in an unforgettable night at Purcell Pavilion. They won important games at Seton Hall, Connecticut and West Virginia. They came back from a 20-point deficit to defeat Villanova in overtime, also on the road. These, just a few special moments from the 2011-12 season.

Picked to finish ninth in the BIG EAST, they did all of this without arguably their best player, Tim Abromaitis, who missed most of the year with a knee injury. The Irish overachieved for much of the season, and were one of the feel-good stories in college basketball.

Tonight in the second half, they looked poised to play on Sunday for a chance at their first Sweet 16 since 2003. Instead, that dream must wait, at least until next March.

The drama that makes March exciting is the same drama that makes it heartbreaking. It’s not like college football. There are no bowl victories. While some mid-majors are happy just earning a tournament berth, at the end of March, 67 of 68 teams are left disappointed. 67 groups of seniors struggle to deal with the end of their college basketball career, 67 coaches ask themselves what went wrong and 67 fan bases hope, pray and dream, that their team will make it back next year for another trip to the Big Dance.

Notre Dame is one of those 67 programs, and with the way the season ended, I’m sure you’ll be hard-pressed to find a team or coach more motivated to earn that coveted invitation again in 2013.

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