Irish Loss Suspends Belief

NEW YORK – It should have been a memorable night. This game should have featured a ranked Notre Dame men's basketball team in Madison Square Garden, led by the best player to ever come out of neighboring Staten Island. It would have been electric, and it would have been an Irish moment.

But when that story line dissolved in the aftermath of Kyle McAlarney's bad judgment, an alternately compelling angle would have been the freshman from Saginaw, Mich. stepping in to make the play of the game.

Darn if that isn't exactly what happened. Problem was, it was the wrong freshman from Saginaw and the team that was left celebrating on the floor was St. John's.

Larry Wright, a first-year guard, drained a three-point shot with 10.4 seconds remaining to provide St. John's with a 71-68 Big East Conference victory before a modest crowd of 6,873 at the World's Most Famous Arena. The loss was painful on two fronts for the Irish as it extended its Big East road losing streak to three, and it failed to erase the pain of McAlarney's semester-long suspension from Notre Dame.

"A terrible day all around," said senior Colin Falls. "We're not supposed to talk about Kyle's situation, but it hit us hard. There is nothing positive to come out of this. A win may have helped, but it wouldn't have made us forget."

Wright attended Saginaw High, across town from Buena Vista High, the alma mater of Notre Dame freshman point guard Tory Jackson. Saginaw is hardly Big East territory, so it was somewhat startling to see two players from that rust belt venue on the floor at MSG at the same time. It was ridiculously ironic how their playing lives converged at this precise moment, with Jackson starting in place of the sidelined McAlarney.

"It was weird," said Jackson. "I know (Wright) very, very well and knew when he got that last shot off that it was going to go in."

With the loss Notre Dame drops to 16-4 overall, 4-3 in the Big East Conference. Its NCAA Tournament resumé remains solid, but there is increasingly no room for error. The Irish dropped into a tie for seventh in the conference with West Virginia and now have back-to-back difficult games versus Villanova (home on Saturday) and at Syracuse (next Tuesday).

"This would have been a steal on the road," said head coach Mike Brey, perhaps overestimating the ability of St. John's, a still-modest 12-8 overall, 3-4 in the Big East. "I just told the team that we'll flush this one and try again on the road next Tuesday."

What won't be as easy to flush is the memory of McAlarney. Notre Dame was 13-1 and rolling with the sophomore in the starting line-up, averaging more than 10 points and five assists a game. But after he was pulled over on Edison Road near campus and arrested for marijuana possession in the early morning of December 29, the Notre Dame Student Affairs Committee suspended him for the semester late in the day on Monday, just before the Irish boarded their charter flight for New York. He can reapply for admission this summer, but early quotes that McAlarney and his mom have provided to the South Bend Tribune and The Associated Press illustrate bitterness.

"I love Kyle McAlarney," Brey said. "I love him like a son. To say that wasn't a dagger to all of us would be an understatement."
,br> Notre Dame played the first-half at Madison Square Garden – with an empty balcony and plenty of good seats available in the lower bowl – like a team that had been through an emotional wringer. A St. John's team that scored 45 points against Boston University in overtime on this same floor in December, scored 49 in the first 20 minutes alone. Senior Lamont Hamilton – a pre-season Wooden Award candidate – poured in 23 of them.

"Forty-nine points for them, ouch," said Brey. "That's hard to absorb."

Also hard to absorb is that the Irish have trailed by at least 14 points in each of its three conference road games this winter.

Fortunately, Notre Dame was its usual capable self in the first stanza also, and trailed only 49-41. And when Russell Carter (career-high 32 points) scored 11 consecutive points in the first 4:15 of the second-half, the Irish led, 52-49, and a healing victory seemed to be on the way.

Unfortunately for the small pockets of Irish fans in the darkened stands, over the next 14 minutes of basketball, Notre Dame had just four field goals and the contest eroded into a Who Wants It Less affair, with too many poor shots and questionable decisions. Evidence of that? The squads combined for more turnovers (35) than assists (26).

"Turnovers at key times hurt us," said Brey. Jackson and Carter had five each and St. John's junior point guard Eugene Lawrence had an almost unthinkable 10 giveaways.

Still, what the game lacked in artistry, it did make up for in drama in the closing minute. And Jackson (six points, eight assists, four steals in 38 minutes) was showing moxie. He hit a big driving lay-up with 1:05 left to close the Irish within 68-67, and then forced a turnover immediately near midcourt. That ultimately led to Falls (16 points) being fouled in a foul-line collision.

The senior made just one of two – "a terrible miss," he admitted – and the contest was tied. St. John's took a timeout with 36.1 seconds remaining and designed a play to go through Hamilton, who after playing like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the first-half was Tom Boerwinkle down the stretch, not scoring a point or shooting a free throw the rest of the way.

"I had an option to shoot," said Hamilton, "but I didn't want to force anything. And I saw (Wright) in a nice spot."

Wright's jumper from the right baseline was pure. Notre Dame had timeouts available, but rushed the ball up the floor and got nothing better than a deep, contested Carter jumper. No good and a group of Red Storm students found the floor.

"I'm going to hear about this all day," said Jackson of Wright's winning shot. "Of all people to hit the winner."

Other bad signs for the Irish. Its three "bigs" – Rob Kurz, Luke Harangody and Rob Zeller – were non-factors. Each collected three fouls in the first-half and collectively shot one-for-11 from the floor for eight total points. Zach Hillesland rescued the trio with 32 capable minutes off the bench (six points, six boards).

Brey's lack of confidence in freshman reserve guard Jonathan Peoples limited him to four total minutes of play. With closure on McAlarney, this is now Jackson's team to run.

"I made some plays at the end, I'll walk out of here with confidence because of that," said Jackson. "Otherwise, let's forget this one."

It's a shame. Because this one should have been memorable.

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