The Notre Dame Fighting Irish came into their first ever EA Sports Maui Invitational final tonight 6-0, ranked 8th nationally, and confident after edging the Texas Longhorns 81-80 Tuesday night.
The North Carolina Tar Heels (5-0) though, are, as they say, a whole different animal.
It has been noted, both here at UHND and elsewhere, that the last time the Irish played a #1 ranked opponent they defeated the Heels 60-58 in February 1987. After watching tonight’s match-up one can only assume that North Carolina is still somewhat miffed about that result.
Both teams feature high-octane offenses, two of the best coaches in the country, and legitimate college superstars. The question coming into tonight’s matchup was could the Irish play enough defense – make enough stops – to keep the game close and to put it into the hands of Harangody inside and McAlarney outside.
Notre Dame opened the game with great offensive rebounding and put-back ability that had them up 12-11 at the 15:11 mark of the first half. This is about as strong as the Irish would look until a late run in the second.
Led by the speedy junior Ty Lawson, who would finish the night with 22 points and a career high 11 assists, the athletic and deep Tar Heels quickly took control of game, opening up a 24-19 lead at the 10:20 point after the Irish went on a cold run, missing five straight shots from the floor. Largely inept, mistake-filled play, and poor rebounding allowed North Carolina to take their largest lead of the half, 14 points.
Tyler Hansbrough, leading all Tar Heel scorers, would finish the half with 15 points largely on gutsy inside play.
The Irish opened the second by roughly challenging Ty Lawson’s thus far uncontested runs to the post. This physical play led to some foul problems as both Zach Hillesland and Luke Zeller were forced by four fouls each to sit for periods, exposing the inexperienced Irish bench.
The Tar Heels began to pull away by the mid point of the second half, as the Irish began to show the fatigue of tournament play. North Carolina opened up a 23 point lead by the 9:42 mark.
Irish senior Kyle McAlarney tried singlehandedly to bring the Irish back late, by hitting a series of what can only be described as seemingly impossibly deep threes from virtually every point beyond the arc. McAlarney would finish his impressive night with a career high 39 points on 10 three’s, a Notre Dame record.
This display, coupled with a 20-8 Irish run at one point was not enough to bring the Irish even, though it did bring them to within 11 points by the 5:10 mark, which seemed to revive the outnumbered Irish fans in the crowd.
Even during the run however, Notre Dame seemed unable to make stops. A troubling development.
If the Irish want to fulfill expectations this season they must improve two aspects exposed tonight: inside play, and defense. Notre Dame has devoted itself to a reemphasis on guard play that is dynamic and exciting to watch, but this is only so when the Irish are consistent from three point range. But what happens when, at some point this season, they aren’t?
Nevertheless, the Irish did show both brilliance and heart in this tournament, including tonight against a North Carolina team that, if it can remain healthy, seems poised to be a Final Four contender.
There is a lot for this Notre Dame team to look forward to.