Saturday, December 09, 2006

And we're back... | by Pat

Sorry for the delay folks, but the real world intervened. New jobs, a case of the flu, and the birth of a new child (congrats KevinC!) have kept us all pretty busy lately. Now, to catch up on a wild and woolly three and a half weeks of Irish hoops....

When we last tuned in, things weren't looking great. The Irish had lost to Butler of all teams, but more disappointing than the actual loss was the fact that Brey fell back into the short bench habits that have hurt him in the past. Following that nadir though, the team has shown remarkable resilience and have worked their way back up to heights that, quite frankly, not many anticipated.

The Irish rebounded from the Butler loss to put away Lafayette 92-66 in the consolation round of the pre-season NIT. The short bench issues of the game before disappeared as nine different Irish players saw at least 16 minutes of playing time. The Irish also dominated the boards, another past weak spot, by not allowing the Bulldogs an offensive rebound until the final few minutes of the game.

A cupcake game against The Citadel followed and ND made sure the game was never in doubt by jumping out to a 40-12 halftime lead and turning that into a 74-50 win. Freshman Luke Harangody continued his strong play by not only posting his fourth straight game in double figures, but by also outscoring the entire Citadel team in the first half, 16-12. For his efforts, Harangody was then named Big East Freshman of the Week. And once again, the substitutions flowed freely as eight Irish players were on the floor for 17 minutes or more.

The Irish then squared off against Irish alum and former Brey assistant Billy Taylor and his Lehigh Mountain Hawks. The Irish offense kept up the hot pace with a 93-87 victory that saw Rob Kurz hit a career mark in points. Lehigh built a lead that stretched into double figures in the first half, but the Irish battled back and took the lead for good with just under 15 minutes to play. There was some concern that speedy Lehigh point guard Jose Olivero was able to consistently shake Irish defenders on his way to 32 points.

One final tasty treat showed up on the Irish doorstep in the form of the Winston-Salem State. An easy 90-45 victory followed that again saw nine different Irish players hit the double digit mark in minutes played with no one getting more than 25 minutes. Rob Kurz continued his hot play with 18 points and 10 rebounds.

Finally, the easy part of the Irish schedule was over and a ranked team had shown up in the opposing locker room in the form of the 23rd ranked Maryland Terrapins. The game started with the Irish falling behind and working to keep the game close, which they did as the first half ended with ND only down by three. The deficit grew to 7 before the Irish ripped off an impressive 25-7 run, spurred on by Kyle McAlarney who scored 8 straight at one point during the run. The Terrapins tried to rally back and re-take the lead, but the Irish held strong down the stretch and came away with an upset 81-74 victory in the BB&T Classic. And showing that things have changed from the Butler game, Brey kept going to his bench in a close game against a tough opponent. Eight different players saw at least 12 minutes of playing time and the scoring was very distrubited with four different players hitting double digits in points. As a key part of ND's upset win and 3-0 week, Rob Kurz was named to the Big East honor roll, which highlights stellar play by Big East members during each week.

The Irish were riding high with a lot of optimism and confidence, but a threat in the form of #5 ranked Alabama came into South Bend with the type of long, athletic team that has always given Brey's teams fits. With ESPN coming into town and giving most of the nation their first look at the revamped Irish, everyone was getting excited for the game. Vitale gave a special shoutout to fans about the game while the ND Promotions department planned a "Black Out" night were fans were encouraged to wear black to show support for the Irish. (It sounded a bit silly to be honest, but didn't look bad at all on TV)

Once the game started, 'Bama showed just how athletic they are by dominating on the boards and throwing down a few dunks that shook the JACC. But ND never backed down and even survived an offensive drought by picking things up on the defensive side of the ball. Key in the game was the play of freshman Tory Jackson who came off the bench to slow down the Crimson Tide's stud point guard Ronald Steele. Quick guards had given the Irish trouble earlier in the year and the move of having Jackson, along with Russell Carter, slow down Steele was excellent coaching. Jackson and Carter also combined on a Carter steal followed by a Jackson reverse to tie the game up at 49 with 30 seconds left in the half. Excellent team defense kept 'Bama from getting a good shot off and the teams headed off the court all knotted up.

In the second half the Irish kept shooting lights out, especially Russell Carter who put on a show. On defense the Irish switched to more man-to-man defense which certainly helped cut back on the number of Alabama rebounds. Also, ND stayed in the game by converting points off turnovers. In the first half, ND out-scored Alabama 11-4 in points off turnovers and that increased to a 18-5 margin in the second half. That alone largely accounted for the fact that with 5 minutes left in the game, ND enjoyed a comfortable 10 point lead, 85-75.

But then Irish fans all over the nation started to have uncomfortable flashbacks to last year as Alabama scored a quick handful of baskets aided by back to back Irish turnovers, their first in nearly 20 minutes of play. Suddenly there were 3 minutes left and the Irish were desperately clinging to a 3 point lead.

What followed was one of the most exciting and enjoyable Irish runs that I can remember. Game hero Russell Carter nailed a three pointer to stretch the lead to six. Zach Hillesland then stole the ball down low and Carter stepped up once again by drilling an outside shot setup by a great dribble move to create separation. Back on defense, Luke Harangody stripped Steele and drove the length of the court with two 'Bama defenders closing in fast. In a athletic move not expected out of the bullish Harangody, Luke fended off the defenders and converted the layup while getting fouled. He hit the free throw to give ND an eleven point lead.

Russell Carter then stole the ball for ND's third straight defensive forced turnover which lead to two Colin Falls free throws and the rout was on. ND tacked on four more points and Alabama hit a three to reach the 99-85 final score.

Words don't really do that final run justice, so I highly suggest you watch it. Thanks to for putting that up on the web.

With back to back wins over ranked teams for the first time since 2002 and again excellent use of the bench (8 player with double digit minutes once again), Coach Brey and his young Irish team are really riding high. A slew of easily winnable games await the Irish before kicking off the Big East regular season. Not only that, but Butler has also been a surprise team and the Irish loss doesn't look so bad as Butler is currently has an RPI rating of #1. The wins over Maryland and Alabama are absolutely huge for ND's NCAA tourney resume and with the relatively easy Big East schedule (no Pitt, no UConn), the Irish are poised to make a serious run at not only a tournament berth, but a decent seed.

Granted, the season is still young, but the 7-1 Irish have already shown that they will fight for rebounds, play solid defense, share the load in terms of scoring and minutes played, and most importantly, not wilt when things get tight at the end of the game. I don't know how the rest of the season will play out at this point, but I can say that this team is a lot of fun to watch and Coach Brey is working extremely hard to correct the mistakes of the past few years.

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