1977-1978: Digger Phelps leads the Irish to the Final Four.
Digger Phelps is a legend on the Notre Dame campus. The former head coach and former ESPN analyst coached the Fighting Irish for 20 years, amassing a 393-197 record. Of all the great things Coach Phelps achieved (seven wins over #1 ranked teams, ending UCLA’s win streak twice, etcetera), one stands out the most. In 1978, Digger Phelps led the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to its first and only Final Four to date.
The 1977-1978 edition of the Fighting Irish, independent of conference affiliation at the time, was led by the likes of Dave Bratton, Bruce Flowers and Bill Laimbeer, and had a talented freshman contributing who you may have heard of: Kelly Tripucka. The regular season saw the Irish ranked in the top ten more often than not, reaching as high as #2. The NCAA tournament was not seeded at the time. But based on where the Irish were placed, having been ranked #6 nationally at the time, they were essentially a two-seed.
The tournament run featured a 23 point win over Houston in the first round, with five Irish players scoring in double digits including 20 and 9 rebounds from Bill Laimbeer. At the time, the tournament was 32 teams, so the round of sixteen and a matchup with Utah was next up. The Irish dispatched the Utes with ease, setting up a showdown in the round of eight with archrival DePaul. A rematch from a regular season loss to the Blue Demons, The Irish would dominate on its way to an 84-64 win and the first trip to the Final Four in program history. The Irish would manufacture a second-half comeback against the Duke Blue Devils in the Final Four, but ultimately fell 90-86. The 1978 Final Four marked a high point in the history of the Notre Dame basketball program, which would see a lot of change over the two decades that followed as the life of an independent basketball program would get more and more difficult.
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