With both Fighting Irish Thomas and John “Wayward Son” O’Toole in attendance, the rabid home crowd and clutch shooting of Kyle “The Smile” McAlarney saved the Irish from the clutches of the hungry Huskies, as Notre Dame downed Connecticut 73-67, extending its Joyce Center win streak to thirty.
Although most of the students (including the Irish Student Band) were home on winter break, the native South Benders (backed by the small but energetic “Irish Alumni Band”) took up the slack and the crazed home crowd helped the Irish speed off to a 22-6 lead. While McAlarney paced the Irish players at this point with three 3-pointers, Wayward Son inspired the Irish fans, as his resolute cheering led the Leprechaun to fire the first free Notre Dame t-shirt in his direction, which he caught despite an over-the-back attempt by an aggressive man in row 11. With Tory Jackson (11 assists) leading the fast-break, Luke Harangody (14 first-half points) scoring in the middle, and McAlarney (18 first-half points) on fire from everywhere else, the Irish increased their lead to 43-22 shortly before halftime, and it appeared the rout was on. But the Huskies, led by 7-foot-3-inch Hasheem “The Tree” Thabeet had other ideas.
The sign of things to come came with 17 seconds left in the first half. Driving to the basket, Jackson was slammed to the floor by Thabeet, leaving Tory with a severe cornea abrasion. And although Jackson returned to play the entire second half, something (namely Tory’s vision, with one eye swollen almost shut) was missing. Whereas the Irish scored 22 in the first five minutes of the game, the opening five minutes of the second saw them score 2 on a lone McAlarney bucket, and a 25-6 UConn run had cut the Irish lead to 49-47.
The next ten minutes saw intense defense by both sides, but with under 5:00 to play, the Huskies finally overtook the Fighting Irish by a point. The Irish guards looked exhausted, and the play of Thabeet had held the frustrated Harangody (who finished 5 of 23 from the floor) scoreless in the second half. But Jackson, looking like a prize fighter in the 15th round, drove to the basket one more time with 1:52 left and was fouled once again by Thabeet. Proving Coach Brey’s theory that a tired one-eyed Jackson is better than a fresh Jonathon Peoples, Tory made both free throws to extend the Irish lead to six.
“I couldn't see anything,” confessed Jackson, “I just prayed they both went in.”
Still as gutsy as Jackson’s performance was, the night belonged to McAlarney. If the native New Yorker’s performance at Madison Square Garden this November was his hometown redemption, Saturday’s career high 32-point effort, which included 6 of 7 from three-point range as well as clutch shot after shot in the second half, was his vindication in his home away from home. For Kyle had considered quitting Notre Dame after the University had suspended him for a semester for marijuana possession, but the kid who loved the movie Cinderella Man knew HIS comeback, to be true, must come at Our Lady’s University. “THIS was a huge win for us!” said the once and future Irishman McAlarney. “We ground it out … we stayed composed … I can’t stop smiling.”
And, if Wayward Son’s mug was any indication, neither could the Notre Dame faithful, as we marched away under the watchful eye of Our Lady on the Dome.