Irish eyes are smiling (even Tory Jackson's).
I don't know how to start this one. First of all, I don't like watching close games. I much prefer the 30 and 40 point thrashings of inferior opponents to the heart-wrenching stuff of which the Big East season is made. But that's what you have to do in this league. Throw your weight around and just survive.
The crowd was excellent. 10-11,000 in attendance without the students. Loud from the opening tip. Got the team fired up unlike anything we have seen this season. And we needed it.
Hasheem Thabeet certainly lived up to his billing as a supreme shot blocker and defender. Of course, it's nice when all three officials swallow their whistles at once. The block on Tory Jackson at the end of the first half was clean, but several were not. Luke Harangody was completely neutralized in the second period due to the lack of any rule under the basket. That's how players get hurt. We're lucky that Tory was able to complete the game with his corneal abrasion and that no one else was seriously injured. It was unbelievable how the referees allowed Thabeet and his teammates to get away with murder under the basket while they were too focused on touch handchecks in the backcourt. I do not blame Thabeet, who took every inch the officials gave him. I blame the referees in this game (I really wish I had their names). The Big East is supposed to be a tough tooth-and-nails conference, but this was pure ridiculousness.
The first half was beautiful free-flowing basketball in which the Irish dominated for twenty minutes. The second half was a drawn out war of attrition that the boys won by playing gutsy hard nosed basketball. It is unfortunate how the officials allowed the game to turn into an all-out slug fest and I hate to complain like this in a win, but I'm sure that the UCONN fans noticed the terrible officiating as well. We may have gotten away with a few hacks ourselves, but there should have been much more order.
That said, I love this team. Their heart in coming back after giving up such a large lead at the end was unbelievable. Tory's grit in playing all 20 minutes after his eye injury, our captain Rob Kurz and K-Mac shooting lights out when we needed them, down to even the much-maligned Luke Zeller who stood toe-to-toe with Thabeet when asked, all showed why this team is so special. They play for each other, give themselves up and leave everything on the floor. You have to get behind this squad.
Thabeet got in the first block of 10 (he almost had a triple double) early against Harangody. No one knew then how critical that matchup would become. K-Mac drained the first of his six threes soon after and the crowd got involved. Less than two minutes into the contest, the team earned a standing ovation during a timeout. The Irish ran well and hit their shots to end the half up 47-32. Just before the break, of course, Jackson received his eye injury in a hard block that sent him to the floor.
In the second half, the team came out flat. Jackson was tentative and the Irish seemed unable to recapture that first half magic. The 29 game winning streak certainly did not seem to be in jeopardy, but the Huskies slowly pulled away at the lead. The no calls under the basket drew boos from the crowd and Harangody was completely taken out of the game, literally and figuratively, by Thabeet's physicality. Bamm-Bamm kept short-arming the ball on his jump hooks, trying to get them over the UCONN center's massive frame, to no avail. All hope seemed to leave the building as the Huskies crawled back to tie the game and then take a quick lead. Then it was the captain, Rob Kurz who drilled the open three to retake the advantage. After an Irish stop, Kyle McAlarney sank another open long range jumper to put the team up 67-61 with 2:35 remaining. With the team up two and 37.6 seconds remaining, the junior shooting guard from Staten Island drove to the lane and hit a rainbow runner in front of his mom. McAlarney truly has ice water in his veins. Two Ryan Ayers free throws gave us the final score.
What to say about Tory Jackson? He wasn't his same, bull-in-a-china-shop, self in the second half, but coming back from that injury is truly encouraging. 6 points, 7 rebounds, 11 assists, and 7 turnovers in a performance that truly fits the sophomore point guard. He made mistakes, turning the ball over too much. He showed off, with an early no look spin pass to McAlarney for an open three. He played with true grit and determination, coming back from a terrible injury to play all but two minutes of the game. He's not the most reliable player, but he embodies what this team is all about. Definitely need to cut down on the mistakes, but it's hard to demand for Coach Brey to take him off the floor. He also shoots free throws better with one eye apparently...
Ryan Ayers had five points and three rebounds. It what was such a slug fest, he kind of well off the radar in the second half. He must shoot better than the 1 of 4 from beyond the arc that he had tonight. Still he did end up with the game clinching rebound and was solid down the stretch, so no complaints here.
Luke Harangody was on fire in the first half. In the second, he was completely taken away by Thabeet's physical play. Obviously, giving 7 inches to a great defender is terribly hard to overcome. When he didnt take over like he did last game, it is easy to get angry with the the player who is quickly becoming the best pound-for-pound post presence in the Big East. Still, 14 points and 10 rebounds against the best defender he will play all year. He even outrebounded UCONN's center, no small feat. It was just not his night for the heroics.
You couldn't ask for a better captain that Rob Kurz. 14 points and 10 rebounds, but they came down the stretch for the lone senior. He showed incredible poise knocking down two three pointers. He showed some spunk pushing Thabeet around when he had to. He is usually our rock out there, quietly performing. Tonight, those outside shots were huge and he stepped up to equal Harangody's great rebounding night against the best rebounding team in the league.
Kyle McAlarney is my anti-drug. Seriously, think where this team would be if Kyle had not returned. The young man is unflappable, hitting offbalance jumpers when the team had no inside presence down the stretch. The dagger at the end, his trademark rainbow in the lane, was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. If you want vindication, you've got it. Welcome home, K-Mac. 32 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds. No turnovers. 6 of 7 from beyond the arc after being cold in his last few outings. This guy is truly something special and I can't wait to see the rest of his Notre Dame career.
Off the bench, Hillesland did his share playing against Jeff Adrien in the post. Only 2 points and 5 rebounds, but we just needed bodies tonight. Peoples had an uninspiring 5 minutes and Zeller was asked to spell Harangody a few times once it became clear that the refs were not going to call anything on Thabeet.
This was a special win. It was so nearly a very devastating collapse, but the squad held tough and pulled it out. I still don't know why Coach Brey failed to call some timeouts to stop the bleeding during UCONN's comeback, but it all worked out in the end. The fact that we ended with more fouls than Connecticut is downright comical. Rob Kurz, not known for being extremely physical, finished with four fouls. Hasheem Thabeet, the guy who threw several of our players to the ground? ZERO. That makes me angry.
Bad officiating aside, this was a very happy night for the boys. A big time win that could catapult the team into the rankings. 30 straight at home and a nice 2-0 conference record to take to Marquette. It takes guts, and we have plenty of courage.
I've already made my comments about how he seemed to get away with everything, but Thabeet truly is a great player. Even if he had been called on three or four of those blocks, it was still a great night for him and he did a great job stopping a true talent in Harangody. Jeff Adrien got a double double by hiding in the low post, where we sometimes lost track of him. Dyson and Price also scored double figures, but I really wasn't impressed with their overall scoring ability. I know the Irish are a very good defensive team, but the Huskies were dismal shooters tonight, 12% from beyond the arc. Lots of their baskets came off of second chances (13 offensive rebounds).
To outrebound such a great team on the boards is a special night. Kudos to Kurz and Harangody for that. Both teams shot under 40%, but the Irish survived by connecting from long range. Too many turnovers once again, but tonight you have to give Jackson a break. They missed more free throws that we did and only made one more (another testament to the poor officiating). From our charity stripe everyone chipped in and hit 10-11.
That's a great win to put in the pocket. February 13th will be a tough rematch so I'm glad we got this half of the series. Say a few Hail Mary's in thanksgiving that we finally won a close won. Here's to a healthy eye for Tory and an upset in a week.