Irish Take First League Loss "Gravely"

David Graves felt he and his teammates played like "punks" against Villanova Sunday afternoon. That is a harsh assessment, but Notre Dame's 74-72 loss to Villanova did have a "woulda, coulda, shoulda" feel to it. The defense of the Irish's Big East crown will not be easy. IrishEyes Managing Editor Alan Tieuli reports courtside from the Joyce Center.

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January 6, 2002

Irish Comeback
Little Consolation

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service

NOTRE DAME, IN (IE) – It's only one game into the Big East Conference season, and Notre Dame captain David Graves felt the need to bring the hammer down.

"We can continue to play like punks, or we can do something about it," Graves said following the Irish's disappointing 74-72 loss to Villanova Sunday afternoon at the virtually sold-out Joyce Center. "Not all five guys are committed defensively. I don't know why."

Graves' analysis is too harsh, especially with head coach Mike Brey stressing to his team how "resiliency" is going to be the key in a long, competitive Big East season. But the defending West Division champs were outhustled and outsmarted by an upstart Villanova team, that came into South Bend a significant underdog and left as one of the surprises of the early season.

Officially, it was Derrick Snowden's courageous penetrating lay-up with 26 seconds remaining that gave Villanova its winning basket. The loss was earned, though, when the Irish slipped into a 14-point deficit (63-49) in the second-half.

"I give our guys a lot of credit," said Brey. "The second-half comeback is something to build on. They fight, they got a lot of pride. But you also want to get past the good, old college try. That's should be a given at this point."

Villanova improved to 2-0 in the East Division of the Big East, 9-2 overall.  The Wildcats will be heard from all season with a charismatic new leader.  Notre Dame slips to 0-1, 10-3 overall, the three losses by a combined six points. The Irish remain winless in eight tries against 'Nova in Big East play.

It is clear that Notre Dame's defense of their West Division crown is not going to be easy. The conference season is less than one week old, and the Irish already trail 2-0 Pittsburgh and Syracuse by one and one-half games. And they visit both on an upcoming three-game road trip.

But it's only one loss, and senior center Harold Swanagan (12 minutes, no points, four rebounds) was rendered virtually useless with a sprained left ankle. It was also the first Big East encounter for freshman phenom Chris Thomas and it showed.

Judge the Irish in about a month. Enjoy this one for what it was – a quality college basketball game with a super finish.

Notre Dame looked out of it with 8:17 to play when it fell behind 14. But at about that point Brey substituted Torrian Jones for an ineffective Matt Carroll (three-for-10). It provided a spark.

Villanova (seven-for-10 shooting threes) had carved up Notre Dame on the perimeter with Carroll in the game. Jones created chaos, trapping all over the floor with Thomas, and the visitors became unglued. The Wildcats had 13 turnovers the first 28 minutes of the game, but then had 10 in 17 possessions over seven minutes thanks in large part to Jones.

"Torrian Jones gave us a quicker, smaller look," said Brey. "We were really on him this week in practice get back to where he was in the Miami (Ohio) game where he basically won the game for us."

The sophomore – competing against his hometown team – nearly did it again. He never left the floor in a 23-8 run (scoring six points himself) that propelled the Irish into a 72-71 lead with 45.6 seconds left. Graves (game-high 22 points) hit a pair of free throws to give the Irish the advantage.

But first-year Villanova coach Jay Wright won the game for his team with the type of character call that shows he is a star in the making.

Saying later "I would rather have lost the game rather than lose Derrick's confidence," Wright called Snowden's number. The sophomore point guard had committed five turnovers in the last eight Villanova possessions.

None of the miscues seemed to matter when he beat Thomas off the dribble and hit a driving lay-up with 26 seconds to go.

Notre Dame called its last timeout with 22 seconds left and Brey designed a play for his point guard to answer right back. But Thomas' leaner in the lane – very similar to the shot Martin Ingelsby hit to beat Boston College last year – rimmed out with six seconds left. Villanova's Reggie Bryant rebounded, made one of two free throws, and Ryan Humphrey's desperation, half-court shot at the buzzer was short.

"It's a set we worked on," said Brey of the Thomas shot. "I thought maybe he could get by and make a ball. Snowden's strength bothered him throughout the game and certainly right there."

Thomas' first Big East game was flawed but still showed tremendous promise. He made only one of his first 12 shots, but finished with 18 points and seven assists in 40 minutes of play. He's a keeper.

"This is for real," Thomas said. "It's a physical league, it's up-tempo, there's a lot of emotion. A lot still to learn."

Humphrey had an 18-point, 10-rebound effort. But he also missed nine of 15 free-throws, contributing to Notre Dame falling into its deep hole. He blocked four shots, had four steals and worked hard on each and every possession.

"For the most part, Ryan played in a pretty good frame of mind with two or three guys running at him," said Brey. "We had chances to loosen it up with jump shots and didn't. We can't get better looks then the guys we had shooting them."

That brings us back to Carroll, who has now made just 19 of 59 shots dating back to Dec. 1. And seeing players like Gary Buchanan and Bryant (both three-for-four on threes) open for easy looks, it makes one think that Brey could dramatically increase Jones' minutes.

"We weren't moving our feet very well on the perimeter," Brey said. "I don't know why we would be shocked against that quickness, we saw them on tape."

Villanova's backcourt combined for 43 points and made 15 of 26 shots, a ridiculous percentage in a conference game.

And Brey clearly understated when he said "We need Harold back." Without a healthy Swanagan, Notre Dame combined for zero points and five rebounds in the pivot, including no points and one rebound from freshman Jordan Cornette in 25 minutes.

"He had a little bit of that wide-eyed look," Brey admitted of Cornette. Tom Timmermans played just two minutes, strayed outside for an ill-timed jumper, didn't hit the glass for an offensive rebound opportunity, and found the bench for the rest of the contest.

But it is just one game, and Brey will drive home that point as he prepares his troops for a trip to Morgantown on Wednesday. IrishEyes will be there.

"You got to give Villanova credit," Brey said. "They do defend. They really get into you with speed on the perimeter. I told the guys at halftime, don't look around for calls now, this is Big East. It's a different level of physicalness. I thought they harassed us a little bit into quick shots."

"We had our chances," said Humphrey, who plans to spend his Sunday night in the Joyce Center shooting free throws. "We'll learn from this."

(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes and can be reached at Top Stories