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March 18, 2009

Nash role no longer in question

The best part about Tyrone Nash's game Tuesday was the fact no one asked about it.

Seated to the right of Mike Brey in the press conference following Notre Dame's 70-64 win over the University of Alabama-Birmingham in the NIT's first round, questions came about mentality, preparation and attendance. Brey handled the majority. Follow-ups arrived for Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson.

Nash finally turned topical when the discussion moved to New York City and the NIT Final Four, with Madison Square Garden a subway ride from the sophomore's home in Queens.

Maybe the fact Nash's six points and nine rebounds were taken for granted is a good thing.

"You did a great job in here tonight answering questions, by the way," Brey laughed. "This guy continues to give us a big lift with the rebounding and the stuff around the basket."

Since Zach Hillesland took a Hasheem Thabeet elbow at Connecticut that left the senior with a bruised sternum, Nash has developed into a consistent frontcourt force. In the past six games he's averaged 5.5 points and 7.3 rebounds. Now that's the bar for Nash.

"We've been confident in him for a long time now," Hillesland said. "Even when he wasn't playing we were confident in his ability. It was just a matter of him getting that opportunity. He's made the most of it."

As much as Brey has tried to turn the NIT into a senior sendoff, college basketball's other tournament can provide a bounce into next season too. No player can benefit more from the extra work than Nash, who may see his role expand further when New Mexico comes to the Joyce Center on Thursday (7 p.m., ESPN).

Hillesland went down against UAB with a hyper-extended left knee that limited him to 12 minutes. He said he'd play in the second round even if it takes a wheel chair to get him on the court, but at least Hillesland knows Nash is in reserve.

"I'm just thankful to have the opportunity to play and I just try to go out there and produce," Nash said. "I'm just going to go out there and play hard. If coach calls my name I'm going to go out there and produce. If he doesn't, I'm going to be the best cheerleader."

That number has been called often of late, and it's no surprise Nash's statistical surge correlates to a bump in minutes. After logging 20 minutes just once in the season's first 27 games, Nash has played at least that many minutes in five of the past six contests.

"It's huge," said Kyle McAlarney. "We need him to come in to spell Zach. He's been in there in late game situations knocking down free throws and making big plays. That says something about what a player he is.

"It's so fun to play with a guy who's so excited to play. He knows his role. He just wants to win. It's really fun to play with a guy like that."



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