Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Irish Survive Scarlet Scare: Notre Dame nips Rutgers 71-68

It was 11 a.m. Central time, Sunday, and although no other ranked college basketball team was playing at such an early hour, ESPN refused to air the Notre Dame-Rutgers game on one of its major stations, opting for bowling and billiards instead. While such a baffling move makes you wonder if Notre Dame hater/baiter Dana Jacobson is now not only a host but their program director, me and "Wayward Son" John O'Toole (barely out of bed by tip-off time), were able to find the feed on a fund-driving Indiana public television station, and after two guys looking like Irish versions of the "Superfans" got on and made a pre-game appeal for Irish alumni money, the game—or MOST of it anyway—was on.

Although some critics implied that the tied-for-last-place-in-the-Big-East Scarlet Knights were too crappy to be featured on the big stations of ESPN or ESPN2, even for a far from prime-time showing, Rutgers' wins vs. Syracuse and a ranked Pittsburgh squad—as well as their effort (if not late execution) against the Irish—proved to be must-see sports cable TV.

First of all, give Rutgers credit for almost totally shutting down the Big East's leading scorer and MVP candidate, as the Knights double and triple-teamed, harassed and harangued Irish All-Star Luke Harangody into 5-for-16 shooting, "holding" (at times, literally) the big fellow to a league low 10 points—especially impressive considering Luke had just come off a 32-point, 16 rebound performance at Connecticut.

Obviously, such strategy begs for some outside shooter to beat you and although Notre Dame got up by 10 on two occasions, none of Coach Mike Brey's men were consistent enough to allow Notre Dame to pull away, as the Irish needed a lucky Tory Jackson last-second turnaround heave to make it an 8-point 42-34 ND halftime lead. Usually, when the opposition is focused on shutting down Harangody, the Irish can count on Kyle McAlarney to pick up the slack—especially when the game is anywhere near his home state of New York! But while Kyle had a decent game, finishing with 16 points and 4-of-7 from three-point land, McAlarney hit only 1-of-5 from close range, as the Knights crept closer and closer. In fact, the Knights actually were up three with a chance to extend the lead with under six minutes to play, but Notre Dame's player of the game, Tory Jackson, stole the ball, made his layup, then ignited an 11-0 Irish run. No one can argue with ESPN's assessment of Jackson as a "stat stacker" Sunday, for on a day when Harangody proved human, Tory's near triple-double of 17 points (a season high), 10 assists and 8 rebounds proved huge. Still, Jackson's achilles heel, free throw shooting, again reared its ugly head late in the game, as Tory missed two with under two minutes to play, keeping the outcome interesting.

So the game came down to this. After unsung Irish hero Rob Kurz (11 points and team high 14 rebounds) hit a shot to put the Irish up by three with under a minute to go, Rutgers came back with a two and, with the Irish now up one, the Knights intentionally fouled and put the usually automatic Harangody at the line, shooting a one-and-one with 12 seconds left. And then it REALLY got interesting.

First, with the game (and no doubt thousands of dollars of pledge money) literally on the line, Indiana's finest public TV station went blank. But through radio and replay, I can still relay what happened next—Luke uncharacteristically missed the free throw, but instead of a well-planned Rutgers run-out to take the late lead, the two Scarlet Knight rebounders collided, knocking the ball out of bounds, possession to Notre Dame. This time, the Knights were forced to foul McAlarney, and K-Mac did not miss. Finally, when the Rutgers desperation three feel short (and, after the fact, the public TV feed resumed and flashed the final score, the Irish (19-5, 9-3 in Big East) had escaped with a 71-68 victory.

While McAlarney admitted "we got a little lucky at the end," and Coach Brey conceded, "Our life flashed before our eyes," Tory "Action" Jackson would have none of it. "This is the Big East!" exclaimed the little Irish guard, "and a win is a win. To tell you the truth, I feel we played well enough to win." And while that statement might not have been accurate for each and every Irish player Sunday, in the case of the stat-stacker, it was.

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