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Emotional night awaits seniors

February 28, 2011|By TOM NOIE, Tribune Staff Writer

Five senior starters each with a different college basketball story to tell have helped steer the No. 9 Notre Dame men’s team through a special regular season.

But only one, who wears jersey No. 1, took the most direct career path. A large leg of that journey ends Monday against No. 15 Villanova (21-8 overall; 9-7 Big East) when captain Ty Nash plays his final home game. Unlike Senior Nights of seasons past, there is no guessing game as to whether more home games might remain. The Irish (23-5; 12-4) are headed back to the NCAA tournament. This is it.

“It’s been a blessing to be here and have a chance to play here,” Nash said. “I just hope we can do it on a bigger stage.”

Four years ago, Nash was the cornerstone of a four-player recruiting class that harbored big dreams making it big. Classmates Tim Abromaitis and Carleton Scott each sat out separate seasons, and have one year of eligibility remaining. The fourth - guard Ty Proffitt - transferred after one year to Morehead State.

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“They all left me,” Nash joked. “But I wouldn’t want to go out any other way than with this group that I’ve been a part of. It’s just a great testament for what we’ve done.”

Nash will have company tonight in wrestling with his emotions. Walk-on guard Tom Kopko also has been a part of it for four years, but in a behind-the-scenes role. Fellow captain Ben Hansbrough, the team’s emotional epicenter this season, also will play in his final home game. Stoic and certain about every minute and every hour of every day of what needs to be done this season, Hansbrough could not say how he might react to his final night at Notre Dame after arriving three years ago from Mississippi State.

“I can’t put into words what it’s truly going to mean to me,” said Hansbrough, who leads the team in scoring (18.0) and minutes

(35.1). “Words really can’t describe my emotions for how strong I’m going to miss this place, how much I cherish playing for Notre Dame.”

Emotion is such a key component to Hansbrough’s game. He’s a guy that coach Mike Brey has said could either heat a building up or burn it down with his fire. It’s helped drive the Irish to wins in nine of their last 10 games with a chance to still chase a Big East regular-season championship. Emotion, though, is not something often seen from the more reserved and stoic Nash, who usually keeps it all in check even as chaos swirls around him. That’s been tough to do the last couple weeks as the arrival of the end comes closer.

Chasing the successes that lay ahead of Notre Dame has helped Nash sidestep any sentimentality.

“I’m just trying to seize the day - carpe diem,” he said. “Seize the day every day against every team and go out there and give my best and get a win.”

Saturday was league win No. 44 in Nash’s career, which set the school record for conference wins by a four-year class. The Irish have won 92 games in his four years, one shy of tying a record set by last season’s senior class. A bit player early in his career who wondered if there even was a place in the program for him, Nash has appeared in 112 career games, the last 63 as a starter. Never has he led the team in scoring and only occasionally has he been the best rebounder on a given night. Yet the Irish are at their best when the 6-foot-8 left-hander is solid in the low post.

Along the way, he has helped serve as a big brother/mentor for freshmen Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, teaching them lessons about life and college basketball that may not be evident until Nash has long graduated.

“I hope I left an impression with the younger guys and showed them how to be a leader and how it is to succeed in this league,” Nash said. “I hope I left just a little legacy in this program.”

Nash won’t soon be forgotten. Neither will Hansbrough. He visited one school - Notre Dame - while seeking a fresh start after two seasons at Mississippi State. An unknown commodity when he arrived in South Bend, Hansbrough has played with a purpose that few who have worn the Irish uniform for four years have duplicated. Hansbrough likely will earn a first team all-Big East selection. League player of the year still is a possibility, as are big doings in March.

His decision to attend Notre Dame made it all possible, and took his career to heights few expected.

“It’s been a heck of an exclamation point for my senior year,” Hansbrough said. “It ain’t over yet.”

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