Way too close, but a road win in this league is always something to celebrate. Irish are firmly in the driver's seat for a bye with a two-game lead over #5.
The statistics make this look like an easy win for Notre Dame. It was certainly anything but. Outshooting the Scarlet Knights 42% to 38% (47% to 36% from three), the Irish also controlled the glass with 43 rebounds to Rutgers' 35. Free throw totals were the same, but both teams handled the ball well, with Rutgers turning it over 9 times to Notre Dame's 12.
Of course, the numbers only tell part of the story. Rutgers, in losing their sixth straight, held a monopoly on hustle. It's always a tough game at the RAC, but the home team certainly seemed to want this one more. I blame the blue jerseys... don't want to see those things again.
The first half was decent, though not dominant, taking a 8 point lead into the break. The second half (almost all of which I saw, thanks to BW3's big screens), looked like a drawn out boxing match between two middleweights- solid D with stretches of poor offense marred by missed shots and turnovers. When I entered the restaurant, a Tory Jackson free throw put the Irish up 7 with 15:48 remaining. The next 2:27 saw Rutgers score on ever possession save one and turn it into a 50-48 lead for the home team.
Both teams continued to struggle for the next five and a half minutes, Notre Dame unable to retake the lead and Rutgers unable to put it away. A 90 second stretch by ND controlled by Tory Jackson and highlighted by two big three pointers gave the Irish an eight point advantage with six minutes to go.
The rest of the game, the Irish only managed six points, but were able to hang on just barely. Thank a bonehead move by Rutgers in deflecting a missed Harangody free throw out of bounds for keeping Notre Dame ahead.
Tory Jackson was the player of the game, no question. With Luke Harangody out of rhythm and Kyle McAlarney held in check, Jackson took control of the offense. His drives to the basket netted him 17 points, but the 10 assists came on great looks running up the floor. Kept the Notre Dame offense from getting completely out of synch and was able to put Scarlet Knights defenders on their heels with his penetration. 2-5 from the charity stripe, still a big weakness. However, he very nearly became the second Irish player to earn a triple double (Chris Thomas) with his eight rebounds. Glad to see the Tory from last year's Georgetown game back. We'll need to see that more often.
Kyle McAlarney couldn't figure out how to make those driving runners fall today. 4-7 from beyond the arc, but only 1-5 inside. The Rutgers defense did a great job stepping out on him and keeping Mac from taking over the contest. That three-point shooting line normally means more than 16 points for him. Did drain the two free throws at the end to keep it a three point contest.
Zach Hillesland had five points and six rebounds and gave the Irish some added life on the floor. His diving to grab and offensive rebound and subsequent timeout allowed Notre Dame to keep its four point lead and the momentum. While the team was unable to convert on the following possession, a quick Rutgers basket at that time would have been demoralizing after two Tory Jackson missed free throws.
Luke Harangody got into foul trouble and was out of synch most of the game. 10 points, 8 rebounds, but only 5-16 from the field. He was unable to get the jump hook to fall and was pushed around a bunch on defense (though some of his fouls were questionable and the foul trouble kept him a little passive). His point total marks the lowest of the year since Monmouth- the second game of the season. While 10 and 8 are nice games for most power forwards, it is insteresting to reflect on how dominant the big man has been. Only his second game of less than twenty points in the last seven contests. First game without a double-double in that span.
Many people wondered what had happened to Rob Kurz over the last two games. Some even called for Luke Zeller to start in his place, stating that Kurz was only getting the nod as the only senior. Rob Kurz was back today. 11 points, 14 rebounds. Not a great day shooting the ball, but his one made three pointer was a big one with 6:35 to play. His eighth double-double of the year and highest rebounding total of the season. Blocked three shots, a undervaled part of his game. Certainly looks to be back from the flu and stepped up with a disappointing performance by Luke Harangody.
Only Ryan Ayers picked up serious minutes off the bench. His 28 on the floor were more than what all but three players received on the team. 7 points, 4 rebounds. 1-2 from beyond the arc. Luke Zeller hit a good three pointer, but picked up only one rebound and two fouls in his eight minutes of action. Jonathan Peoples had two points in seven minutes.
Obviously, this was not a great trip to Piscataway, but there are few easy contests in the RAC. Rutgers has been pretty bad this year, but played Cincinnati tough and beat Villanova at home. Also won at Pittsburgh. Clearly they can rise to the occasion here and there. That's the great thing about college basketball and this league. Good teams can play poorly and bad teams can play well for 40 minutes, making for plenty of good drama.
Next week, we need to get Luke Harangody on a roll early. Games against Pittsburgh and Syracuse will certainly not be easy wins. If Tory Jackson can provide another great performance or two, we should be able to keep the streak going.