Thomas, ND Fire Blanks

Notre Dame did not feel fatigue was a factor in its 65-62 loss at Rutgers Thursday night. Loose officiating? Now that might be something else. It was a wild and wooly Big East game, and the men with the whistles were letting them play. Not a good combination, according to Mike Brey and Chris Thomas. Alan Tieuli reports courtside from Piscataway.

Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com™

February 14, 2002

Thomas: From Hero
To Zero (Field Goals)

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (IE) – Big East Conference Coordinator of Officiating Art Hyland was at the MCI Center Saturday for Notre Dame's four-overtime victory versus Georgetown. Mike Brey is probably wishing the boss was in central New Jersey Thursday.  He would have had a few questions.

"The point of emphasis of rough play was certainly interpreted differently tonight," Brey said after Notre Dame's 65-62 loss to Rutgers at the crazed Louis Brown Athletic Center.

Rutgers (16-8 overall, 6-5 in the Big East Conference) hounded and pounded the Irish (17-7, 7-4) en route to a critical West Division victory. The most affected member of the Notre Dame traveling party was freshman Chris Thomas, who missed all 14 of his field goal attempts, including a potential game-tying three-pointer with two seconds remaining.

"I felt like I was getting hit with every shot," Thomas said. "They tried to get me frustrated early. I kept shooting, and I kept getting hit. But you can't wait for calls."

Thomas' worst game in an Irish uniform (six points, five turnovers, nine assists) followed up his most heroic (a complete game 60 minutes, 22 points at Georgetown). He claimed he wasn't tired, but it sure looked it. And Rutgers' pesky game plan didn't help matters.

"They really got into us," said Brey, whose team had a five-game winning streak snapped. "They rattled us."

No, there were no chocolates and bouquets being dealt out at Rutgers on this Valentine's Day evening. This was a man's game on the floor with Rutgers clearly having the edge. And Brey was pragmatic about it.

"You know, this was almost predictable," the coach said. "After all the attention (Thomas) has received, and the attention the game deservedly got. This is a learning experience."

The defeat will quickly be forgotten if the Irish can defeat Syracuse on Sunday at the Joyce Center. The two teams are tied for second place in the West Division, one and one-half games behind leader Pittsburgh. The first two teams in each division earn byes in the Big East Tournament and almost certain at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament.

Notre Dame shot just 21-for-62 from the field, two-for-19 from three-point range. It did not hit a trey the final 28:44 of the game and had only one perimeter basket in the second half. Rutgers guards Ricky Shields, Jerome Coleman and, particularly, Mike Sherrod did a masterful job of containing the Irish sharpshooters.

"They had a totally different defensive game plan from last time," said Matt Carroll, who did not score a field goal the last 28 minutes. "They concentrated on stopping us outside and worked through screens."

In addition to Thomas' 0-for-14 performance, David Graves was three-of-11. Notre Dame missed its last 15 three-point field goal attempts.

"Their speed and their ball pressure got to us tonight," said Brey. "They fed off their crowd."

Inside, Rashod Kent (18 points, 15 rebounds) and Ryan Humphrey (18 points, career-high 19 rebounds) waged a battle that was remarkable in its ferocity.

"You had two competitors out there on the floor who had nothing but respect for each other," said Humphrey. "But this loss hurts. We had our chances."

The Irish were outstanding early, shooting out to a 26-16 lead. Carroll had 13 of the 26 and the Irish were pushing the ball with the same aggressiveness and confidence they had displayed in an 89-72 Joyce Center victory over the Scarlet Knights eight days earlier.

But it started to unravel with Coleman – the sharp-shooting junior – hit a wing three and was fouled by Harold Swanagan. The four-point play triggered an 8-0 Rutgers run in 24 seconds and the Irish were never comfortable again.

It was 35-32 Notre Dame at the half, but Brey could sense something was wrong.

"They were disappointed, I think they expected to be up 15 points at half," said Brey. "I told them, ‘Hey, I'm glad we have high standards, but we played well in the half. Just keep plugging.'''

But it was Rutgers that fired the first volley in the second half, with Shields and Sherrod scoring all the points in a 10-2 run that moved Rutgers ahead 42-37. Notre Dame was not getting any perimeter looks, so you knew this deficit would be a problem.

Eventually, with Kent looking like Charles Oakley and the Scarlet Knights getting balanced contributions, the lead expanded to 53-43 (at 10:29) and was still 63-55 with two minutes even to play. But Rutgers – easily the worst foul-shooting team in the Big East at .562 – led the Irish hang around by making only four-of-10 free throws the final 3:03. The Irish had two chances to tie. At 65-62, Humphrey turned the ball over at the top of the key with 7.7 seconds left. But Rutgers' Coleman missed two free throws and Thomas had a chance to wipe away all memories of his sour evening. But his leaning three-pointer from the left of the elbow was short and wide.

"(This game) doesn't bother me," said Thomas. "We are going to come out on top most of the time."


THE NOTEBOOK: The crowd of 7,648 was less than a thousand short of capacity and was in full throat. This is New Jersey's team – Seton Hall has very little fan backing – and the locals are enthralled with new coach Gary Waters. "He has done a remarkable job turning this program around in one year," said Brey……Trainer Skip Meyer will be keeping an eye on Carroll the next two days. He bruised his hip in a vicious first-half collision with Kent, and then twisted his ankle stepping out of bounds after a made field goal. "I think he'll be OK," said Brey…….Torrian Jones was a key in Notre Dame's early run with defensive intensity and three sharp assists. He might have deserved more than 19 minutes on this night, particularly with Graves getting few open looks……Thanks in large part to aggressiveness off the bench from Tom Timmermans (six rebounds in nine minutes), Notre Dame held a 50-40 rebounding edge…..Who says Thomas never rests? Brey inserted Chris Markwood at the point for exactly 42 seconds in the first-half…….Humphrey had three goaltending violations……In the crowd, alums Jimmy Dillon and Todd Palmer. Omnipresent A.D. Kevin White also made the trip…….The team chartered out of Peterboro Airport following and was scheduled to arrive back on campus at 3 a.m…….The Irish will be off Friday and will hone its game for Syracuse on Saturday. The Orange have been off since losing at home to Pittsburgh last Sunday…….If ND wins on Sunday it would win a season-ending tiebreaker with Syracuse due to a better record against divisional foes. If it loses – with road games against Miami and St. John's lurking – fifth place is a distinct possibility. "It is a huge game," Brey admits.

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