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Updated: Friday, March 21, 2003 1:42 AM EST
NCAA BASKETBALL RECAP
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(5) Notre Dame 70, (12) Wisc Milwaukee 69
WISCONSIN MILWAUKEE PANTHERS
Wisconsin Milwaukee Panthers
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NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
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INDIANAPOLIS (Ticker) -- Dylan Page had an upset in his hands but could not finish the job.

Page missed a layup with two seconds as fifth-seeded Notre Dame survived a wild West Region first-round NCAA Tournament contest, posting a 70-69 victory over No. 12 Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Freshman Torin Francis scored on a follow shot with 32 seconds left to give Notre Dame a one-point lead. His basket came moments after teammate Jordan Cornette was blocked in close, and Francis actually appeared to take away the ball from Cornette.

"I was just going after the ball and I just went up with it," Francis said. "I wasn't trying to take it away. I was just trying to win the game."

Wisconsin-Milwaukee (24-8) opted to hold for a final shot and Clay Tucker ran down the clock. He started his drive with seven seconds to go, blew past Torrian Jones and fed Page, who was right under the basket.

Rather than dunk, the 6-8 Page tried to bank it in but missed his layup. The rebound was batted around as time expired and the defeated Panthers collapsed in despair.

"It was right where we wanted to be," Tucker said. "Ball in my hands, shot clock off. We had a great look."

Fighting Irish guard Chris Thomas flew past Page on the play and it may have affected the shot.

"He passed it to big fellow down low," Thomas said. "He had a great look. I either hit him or hit the ball."

A 3-pointer by Jason Frederick gave Wisconsin-Milwaukee a 69-68 edge with 2:33 left before a series of empty possessions. On one of them, Page was blocked and had his follow shot go around the rim before falling out.

It was the second heartbreaking loss for Wisconsin-Milwaukee in Indianapolis. The Panthers suffered a 76-74 setback against Butler on a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

"It's just sad that it came down to losing at the buzzer once again," Panthers guard Ronnie Jones said. "It just didn't come out on our side today."

Notre Dame (23-9) advanced to the second round for the third straight year. The Fighting Irish will face fourth-seeded Illinois on Saturday.

Thomas, an Indianapolis native, scored 27 points and improved to 4-0 in his career at the RCA Dome, including three wins in high school. Thomas, who was hounded into seven turnovers by Jones, was the ringleader behind the Fighting Irish's decision to shave their heads as a team.

"We did it for team unity," Thomas said. "The Fab Five did it when they were in the tournament. We also did it for the men and women who are in the war."

Francis collected 23 points and 14 rebounds in helping pick up the slack for Matt Carroll, a first team All-Big East Conference selection. Carroll played just 14 minutes due to foul trouble and had just one basket.

"I'm so proud of (Francis)," Irish coach Mike Brey said. "He hasn't handled anything this year like a freshman. He is so focused and so determined, I'd be surprised if he didn't come out and have a good game."

Tucker and Jones each scored 18 points for Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which was making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in the 107-year history of the school. Page made just 4-of-14 shots for 14 points.

"I'm so proud of my basketball team," Panthers coach Bruce Pearl said. "I couldn't have asked them to battle any harder. They represented all of the mid-majors tonight."

Notre Dame dominated throughout most of the first half and took a 27-18 lead on Francis' two free throws with 2:17 to go. Wisconsin-Milwaukee closed the half with a 9-2 spurt for a 29-29 halftime tie.

The Panthers shot just 32 percent (11-of-32) in the first half, a welcomed sight for an Irish team that had allowed 87 points per game in its last five outings.

"We limited them to 29 points," Thomas said. "I can't tell you the last time we held a team in the 20s or 30s in the first half."

The second half featured six lead changes. Jones drained a 3-pointer to end a 10-0 tear that turned an eight-point deficit into a 50-48 lead.

Thomas responded with a 3-pointer and two free throws to give Notre Dame the lead. He had a hand in just about every big play for the Irish, with the exception of Francis' winning basket.

"If you take away his daringness and aggressiveness, we're not as good a basketball team," Brey said.

The Irish overcame 20 turnovers, their second-highest total of the season.


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