One Player Away from ND Mardi Gras

Notre Dame was just a couple of inches -- and one go-to player -- from having a wild party on Bourbon Street. The Irish showed remarkable character in rallying from 21 down against Alabama, but the Tide's best player came through in the end. Rally Sons of Notre Dame, indeed, but with an unhappy ending this time. Alan Tieuli reports.

Copyright by Global Electronic Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes™

December 27, 2001

Just One Player Away
From Thrilling Comeback

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com NewsService

There is a lot to like about this Notre Dame men’s basketball team.   But the Irish are one go-to player from being among the college elite.

A remarkable second-half comeback from 21 points down fell short last night in New Orleans because Alabama had Rod Grizzard and the Irish didn’t have a player with similar game-closing ability.  Grizzard scored his team’s final nine points to lead the 23rd ranked Crimson Tide to a 79-76 victory Thursday night at the Sugar Bowl Classic.

Grizzard hit a 27-foot three-pointer to give Alabama a 73-69 lead with 2:38 remaining then hit a line-drive lefty jumper 50 seconds later.  After Notre Dame closed to one on a pair of occasions in the final minute, the junior calmly swished four consecutive free throws.

“He’s a player we do not have a match-up for,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.

A 6-8, 205-pound guard, Grizzard finished with 21 points on seven-for-11 shooting.  “He can be a difficult match-up for a lot of teams, and he is certainly a player we always look for with the game on the line,” said Alabama coach Mike Gottfried.

“I want the ball when the game is on the line,” Grizzard, a competitor who appears to be a bit of a pouter on the court when things aren’t going his way, said simply.

Underscoring how Notre Dame has not established its game-winning identity, the Irish misplayed the ball on their final possession.  A hustling Ryan Humphrey (16 points, but 10 missed field goals and seven unsuccessful free throws) retrieved the loose ball on the right sideline and fired an off-balance three-pointer that hung on the rim for an instant before falling off.

“Almost,” said Humphrey sadly. “There was a lot of almost out there.”

The Irish, now 9-2 with its two losses by a combined four points, are that close to being a ranked team.  But for now they will have to settle for being a squad that is imminently likeable with outstanding coaching, loads of character and burgeoning young talent.

Let’s face it, after the type of football season Notre Dame Nation endured, it was good to see an Irish team playing with character in a “Bowl Game” during Christmas Week.

Notre Dame played its worst first-half of basketball in two seasons and trailed Alabama 45-24 with 18 minutes remaining in the game.  The starting backcourt of freshman Chris Thomas and Matt Carroll combined for one point on 0-for-11 shooting in the opening 20 minutes.

But that duo was also responsible for the pulse-racing comeback.  The two scored eight points on three possessions that covered just 68 seconds, getting Notre Dame back within 45-32.  The Irish fed off that burst of energy and ultimately put together a 25-7 run over six minutes that brought them within 52-49.   David Graves, who finished with a team-high 21 points for ND, had seven points in this run, Carroll eight and Thomas seven.

Even when Harold Swanagan (six points, six rebounds in the first-half) went down with a sprained left ankle at 11:24, Notre Dame did not let up.  Freshman Jordan Cornette filled the void inside.

Ultimately, the Irish took the lead at 62-61 on a loooong Thomas three up top with 6:21 remaining.  And it was college basketball at an NCAA Tournament pitch the next three minutes.

Cornette (six points) took a feed from Humphrey and stuck a jumper to give ND its last advantage, 69-68, with 3:26 remaining.  Alabama quickly answered with a poised jump hook by the underrated Erwin Dudley (20 points on dead-eye nine-for-11 shooting).

Thomas tried to answer the Dudley hoop quickly by pushing the ball down floor and penetrating.  But Alabama’s long, athletic front line blocked the shot and Grizzard made it hurt by drilling his three to give the Tide a four-point lead.

At 77-74 with one minute remaining, Notre Dame ran a play for Humphrey, but he was pushed off the blocks and his jump hook fell short.  Alabama turned the ball over and Graves had a good look at a potential tying three-pointer with 16 seconds left, but it just rimmed out.  Cornette put back the offensive rebound to make it 77-76.

The Irish fouled Grizzard right away off the in-bounds and the junior made both to create the final margin.  Notre Dame’s final possession went awry when Graves, trying to dribble around a screen, got tangled up in a switch and lost control of the ball.

Notre Dame hung tough despite losing Swanagan and with Humphrey playing with four fouls the final 9:19 of the contest.  Brey attempted to spell the foul-saddled Hump with Tom Timmermans, but the experiment lasted exactly 52 seconds as Timmermans picked up an inexperienced foul and then stumbled trying to retrieve a loose ball.

“It’s just too bad,” said Thomas with a little freshman exaggeration, “that every game it seems we are down 15 points before we start to play.”

Brey has stressed his team needs to establish a better defensive identity early in games.  It was an early deficit that led to the Indiana defeat and nearly caused an upset in Oxford, Ohio.  It’s clear the coach is going to have to stay on that bandwagon as the Irish were positively dreadful the first 20 minutes on both ends of the floor.

It’s a good thing the New Orleans Arena was nearly empty for the start.   The less witnesses the better as Notre Dame missed its first seven shots in falling behind 6-0.  Though the Irish rallied briefly and were still within 23-19 with 7:37 left in the half, nothing was coming easy and the backcourt was totally unproductive.  Alabama plodded along for a bit, but then exploded with an 18-4 run to close the half with Dudley doing the inside work and Mo Williams easily besting Thomas in the match-up of McDonald All-American point guards.

“Alabama’s man-to-man flustered us at the start, no question,” said Brey.

The Irish shot just nine-for-32 in the opening half as opposed to 17-for-35 for Alabama.  If not for five offensive rebounds by Swanagan, Notre Dame may have had no offense at all.

Brey was angry with how his team “didn’t respond physically” to Alabama in the first-half and led his team know in the locker-room.  And, through 41 games in the Brey era, it’s clear that Notre Dame rarely plays two bad halves.  This final 20 minutes almost became one for the ages, with the Irish notching 53 points on 16-for-30 field goal shooting and 16-for-17 from the line.

It looks like this program has the potential to win your hearts long term.   But this one still stings. 

(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes and can be reached at aatandsonspr@aol.com)


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