Copyright by Global Electronic Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com
February 17, 2002
IRISH ON THEIR HEELS
By Joe Tybor
For The IrishEyes.Com NewsService
NOTRE DAME, Ind. (IE) --Its hard to take solace from this one
Irish fans could always try to get succor from the pre-game comments of Dick Vitale who told IrishEyes that he thought Notre Dame was a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament. But that was before the Irish blew a seven-point lead it held midway in the second half and lost a crucial contest to Syracuse, 68-65 in front of a national TV audience and a sell-out crowd on Sunday.
Chris Thomas, who went through a 40-minute famine against Rutgers on Thursday, hit Notre Dames first bucket quickly, but again he didnt shoot his best (3 of 11), looked fatigued and missed two key shotsone of them badlydown the stretch.
The Irish had a chance to tie it with a three-pointer but Syracuse played good defense on the final possession with five men on the perimeter and David Graves had to take an off-balance shot that wasnt close.
It shouldnt have come to that, and even coach Mike Brey said, We were beaten before that.
The Irish again were pitiful at the free-throw line, missing 10 out of 24. They also seemed out of synch after taking a 52-45 at the 12:52 mark when Jim Boeheim called a timeout to rally his squad. The Irish had 17 turnovers, several of them key.
Notre Dame threw the ball away on three out of four possessions when it didnt score a point in nearly a five-minute period, and found itself behind 59-56 when DeShaun Williams hit two, huge three-pointers.
Our heads were down. We were back on our heels. We had that lead and couldnt make it nine or 10, said Brey. That psychologically hurt us. Youre think youre playing good, you know you were up by six and seven points and all of a sudden you look at the scoreboard, youre behind and they made some tough shots to do it. Thats a little deflating."
Even on the boards, where the Irish are reliable and Syracuse is the worst in the conference, the Orangemen kept pace with Notre Dame (41 boards each), but walloped them on the offensive side 17-9. Even though Syracuse shot 37 percent, to Notre Dames 44 percent, the Orangemen had 21 more shots, and the Irish just couldnt make up the difference.
Thats hard to absorb, said Brey. "You can absorb eight more shots, or 10 more shots; but when you look at that, they really hurt us on the offensive boards. Weve been so good with the one-and-done situation the last two weeks, but they played fearlessly when they had to get it done.
Thomas, who played brilliantly in the 60-minute win over Georgetown a week ago Saturday but was shut down from the field against Rutgers on Thursday, hit his first shot and Notre Dames first bucket with less than a minute gone in the game. Thomas made his first and only three-pointer at 11:30 of the first period and made another nifty lay-in on the break in the first half. He was 0 for five from the field in the second half and also missed one of two free throws.
After Boeheim called a 30-second timeout with the Irish holding their biggest lead at seven, Thomas was beaten at half-court by James Thues who blew by him for a driving lay-up that started the Orangemen on their 14-4 run which gave them the lead.
He's a little frustrated right now, acknowledged Brey. Thats normal. Man, it couldnt have been any better a week ago (against Georgetown). Can you ride any higher than that? Can you get any more honors? Can you be any bigger than life? Weve got to try to get him back to some middle ground. I need to spend some time with him. As he goes, we go; so we need to rehab that a little bit.
The Irish had a huge foul-shot advantage in the first half but couldnt cash in. They were only 11 of 20 from the free-throw line and even Graves and Thomas in the second half missed one.
We are who we are from the line. I wish that was more of a weapon, said Brey. Im shocked when David Graves and Chris Thomas miss free throws so that definitely hurts you.
With its offensive rebounding advantage, Syracuse outscored Notre Dame 16-6 on second-chance points, but it was their suffocating zone defense that did the Irish in and made them begin their offense playmaking farther out from the circle.
"Our defense in the second half was as good as it has been all year," said Boeheim.
It was kind of like a 4-1 zone, said Graves. They were staying high on the screens and making Harold (Swanagan), Ryan (Humphrey) and Tom (Timmermans) make plays. Unfortunately, we came up a little short. Those two threes (by Williams) just broke our back.
The loss was a big disappointment. A win would have put the Irish in the catbirds seat for second place in the West Division and for a bye in the opening round of the Big East Tournment. Notre Dame is now 17-8 and 7-5 in the conference; while Syracuse is 19-7 and 8-4 in the conference.
Instead of finishing second, the Irish now could finish as low as fifth. Even if they tie Syracuse with conference records, the Orangemen break the tie by virtue of beating the Irish twice this season.
This was a huge game for us, said Graves, who finished with 11 points, one of three Irish players in double figures. "Its just a frustrating situation because now were back down a tier in our division. Now, Rutgers is playing well. This was an absolutely huge game for us, and we cant afford any more losses.
Ryan Humphrey, who had another double-double (15 points, 13 rebounds) also couldnt hide the frustration.
Its very disappointing to know weve been in two games like this in one week, said Humphrey. Ive got some gray hairs from it because we know we just needed to make one or two more plays.
Matt Carroll was high scorer for the Irish with 18 and Williams led four Cuseman in double figures, also with 18.
Afterwards, Brey kept his poise and obviously doesnt want his squad panicking as the Irish host West Virginia Wednesday, travel to Miami Saturday and finish the regular season the following week with a test at St. Johns and at home with Providence.
One thing I told my guys is we cant sit here and jump off bridges and think its a crisis because we do have some good wins in the bank, said Brey. Theres still a lot of basketball to be played and we are doing some things that I really like even though we didnt attack their zone like I would have liked in the last five or six minutes.
It didnt go the way it was scripted to go, but thats the way it is. Weve got to try to keep our heads up and keep that attacking demeanor that we had mostly for the last three weeks.
(Joe Tybor is the founder of IrishEyes, the first Notre Dame web site)