After the heartbreak that was last season, and the departure of Torin Francis and Chris Quinn (who now joins Shaq and Dwayne Wade down in Miami), I have to concede that I did not hold out much hope for the Irish to have a Tournament season. However, while it is still too early to put Falls and company in the field of 65 just yet, I have become a believer in this bunch and the man I will never doubt again: coach Mike Brey.
Coming into tonight’s home game with the undefeated and fifth ranked SEC power Alabama, the 6-1 Fighting Irish had already started tongues wagging with a quality win last weekend over the then #19 Maryland Terrapins. It had been four years since the Irish had had back-to-back victories over ranked opponents, and the Tide, led by arguably the best point guard in the country in junior Ronald Steele, did not seem to be the team against which Notre Dame would repeat the feat.
Clearly no one told this to Irish senior Russell Carter, however, who not only put up 27 points, but who also seemed to have a great time doing so.
Led by Carter’s explosive multi-faceted performance Notre Dame stunned the Crimson Tide 99-85 tonight, in a game that puts another exclamation point on the Irish resume for a March bid. Buoyed also by the outstanding stalwart Colin Falls and sophomore Kyle McAlarney (each with 20 points), and the emergence of the rough-and-tumble 6’8”, 255 pound freshman Luke Harangody, the Irish seemed to take control of the game early in the second half, never letting it go.
The game got off to a somewhat shaky start, as Notre Dame appeared to regress to the worrisome pattern of recent seasons, that of seemingly content to trade the paint for the field. This is not a strategy that has produced the kind of sustainable results needed to ensure victories, especially in close games. The knock against the Irish has been the lack of inside toughness and an over reliance on the 3-pointer. Early on tonight the Crimson Tide trio of Steele, sophomore forward Alonzo Gee, and senior forward Jermareo Davidson, were able to exploit this tendency in Irish play by dominating inside and finding a consistently open back door in the defense.
Mike Brey’s reemphasis on both offensive and defensive rebounding, so apparent in the first seven games this season, seemed to have been forgotten in the early going. Couple this with a near seven-minute span at one point in the first half in which the Irish could not hit a field goal, and one could easily empathize with Brey’s almost comically pained expressions.
It was Russell Carter who hit his scoring and defensive stride first, almost single-handedly changing the very momentum of the contest with his seemingly effortless 3-pointers and crowd-pleasing on court celebrations late in the initial half. Carter managed to not only put the team on his shoulders athletically, but he also quite possibly made this his team tonight by injecting some much needed swagger and personality into the normally staid squad.
Brey’s adjustment to the 2-3 zone defense late in the first half seemed to flummox Alabama, and the two teams went into the half tied at 49 apiece.
It was a 10-0 run by the Irish at around the 12-minute mark of the second half that seemed to take the fight out of the stunned Crimson Tide. Brey’s eight-man rotation that now includes speedy freshman guard Tory Jackson and sophomore forward Zach Hillesland in addition to the aforementioned Harangody began to clamp down defensively, outfighting and out-rebounding the Tide all the while scoring 22 points off of 9 Alabama turnovers.
A steal and breakaway dunk by Carter at the 7:13 mark not only had the Joyce Center crowd on it its feet, but also effectively nullified a short-lived Alabama resurgence which was spurred by some Irish foul trouble.
Notre Dame put the game out of reach late, essentially smothering Alabama where the Tide were strongest: the boards.
There was a scary moment after junior forward Rob Kurz left for the dressing room with 3:25 left, a nasty and profusely bleeding cut having been opened above his eye. He did return.
In the end, the Irish managed to cruise to an impressive victory over a very good and very highly ranked Alabama. And as the student section rushed the court exuberant I couldn’t help but think about how wrong I had been about this team–a team whose only defeat to date is a two-point loss to a very good and undefeated Butler.
Bring on the Big East.