Flush the Doubters: Irish Legit

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – The questions about Notre Dame's legitimacy as a true contender in the Big East Conference were flushed with one powerful Luke Harangody dunk at the Carrier Dome.

The freshman man-child hung on the rim for just an instance and flexed both biceps. On the way down, he stole a glance at the Syracuse student section, scowled and let out a loud woof.

"It was time to send a message," Harangody said. "We're here to stay."

A defining moment, indeed.

The basket put Notre Dame ahead, 38-28, with 8:10 to go in the first-half. On a truly special night, the Irish lead never again dropped into single digits.

And now there may not be a single doubter with a password for Bracketology. Notre Dame, 18-5 overall and 6-3 in the Big East Conference, belongs in any serious discussion about top college basketball teams in the country. NCAA Tournament qualification? Please. Let's start talking seed. Let's discuss bye in the first-round of the Big East Tournament.

Let's start dreaming big. Because a night like this deserves it.

Notre Dame's 103-91 victory over Syracuse was startling. The Irish entered 0-3 on enemy floorboards, and were suiting up for this one without starting forward and team second-leading scorer Rob Kurz (sprained ankle in Saturday's Villanova game). Two of the five black-clad starters were freshmen.

This isn't a vintage Syracuse team (15-7, 4-4), but the Orange still start three formidable seniors and it had dominated Notre Dame in the Mike Brey-era, winning eight of the last nine.

But it meant nothing on this night. Notre Dame was tough, precise and record-breaking.

Try 61 points in the first-half (for a 19-point lead). That's the most points for an opening half in Brey's seven years and the second most ever scored by a team in a Big East game (trailing only Providence's 62 in a 2004 contest versus St. John's).

Try career high in points for Harangody (21), freshman point guard Tory Jackson (19) and sophomore forward Zach Hillesland (14), who started in Kurz' spot. Try a Notre Dame record for points in the Carrier Dome.

And now try and find a doubter.

"I know the NCAA Tournament Committee looks at everything, and they might have been thinking ‘Who are they without (suspended Kyle) McAlarney'," said Brey. "To do this, without Kurz in the line-up too, it sends a message. We're pretty legit."

Not that the players needed to be convinced of that.

"I've known since the first day of practice this would be our year," said senior swingman Russell Carter, who helped bury Syracuse early with four first-half threes, finishing with 18 points. "We still have some work to do, but now people will really believe in us."

Notre Dame is only two games behind Big East-leading Pittsburgh (8-1), and just one game in the loss column behind Marquette, Georgetown and Louisville. The top four teams in the conference get a bye in the Big East Tournament. That's achievable now.

Certainly winning on the road was an important obstacle for the Irish to hurdle. And to do so with such emphasis will make the victory doubly memorable. Notre Dame led by 25 points, 67-42, with 18:37 to go in the second-half and had its advantage peak at 28 (75-47) with 14:04 to play.

The victory was so thorough that the last Irish field goal came with 10:51 remaining, on a Ryan Ayers jumper. The last 24 points came from the free throw line (on 28 attempts).

"They backed down," said Jackson, who celebrated his 19th birthday with not only a career-high in points but also seven assists and three steals. "We saw it early. They didn't want to compete with us. We were smart, we attacked, and they didn't put up a fight."

Pretty strong words from a freshman, but they were accurate. To see Jackson knife through the Syracuse defense for two uncontested lay-ups in the final minute of the first-half was jaw-dropping.

"The freshmen, they make us tougher," said Brey, referring specifically to Harangody and Jackson. The duo does appear to be the tonic this program – three years removed from an NCAA Tournament berth – needed.

"Did you see the end of the Villanova game?" asked assistant coach Gene Cross. "That loose ball near midcourt? Harangody is stepping on the wrist of the Villanova player, fighting, scrapping, doing whatever he can to get the ball loose. That's what we are building here. Tough kids."

"You do what you have to do to win games," said Harangody. "That's our focus. We weren't intimidated here by the setting, though it was pretty cool to play in a place I've only seen on TV."

Harangody spent a couple of extra moments in the pre-game lay-up line looking around, gazing at the 2003 National Championship banner above the second deck. Even though it wasn't a massive crowd by Carrier Dome standards, 23,274, there is still nothing like the Dome in winter.

And on this night – the first game at home for Hall of Fame mentor Jim Boeheim after he achieved the 1,000 games coached milestone – it should have been an Orange Moment.

But the rabid locals had virtually nothing to cheer about after the first TV timeout. Syracuse's last lead was 11-9 with 16:32 remaining in the first-half. After that, Notre Dame couldn't miss.

The Irish shot 10-for-17 on three's in the first-half, and it wasn't just the usual suspects. Ayers hit one. Jonathan Peoples came off the bench to drain another. At the half, all five Irish starters had six or more points and all nine who had players had at least one field goal. The team had an astonishing 17 assists on 24 field goals with just two turnovers.

"It was as perfect a half as you can get," said Jackson, who quarterbacked an offense that had just one first-half assist against Villanova on Saturday.

"We tell our guys to shoot," said Brey, "even shoot some bad ones." On this occasion, though, virtually ever shot was a Van Gogh.

Colin Falls scored 14 of his 16 points in the first-half, splashing four treys as Syracuse couldn't stop Notre Dame in either man or zone defenses.

Syracuse's three seniors – all-league candidates Demetris Nichols, Terrence Roberts and Daryl Watkins – had acceptable nights on the scoresheet, combining for 59 points. But they were pushed around inside by Harangody (13 rebounds) and out-worked by Hillesland (10 boards).

They say you are never as good as you look winning, and never as bad as you appear when you are losing. And, make no mistake, with freshmen playing key roles, the Irish will stumble again this season in a game they should win. Maybe even Saturday night in Tampa against conference weakling South Florida, although Kurz is expected back and that should help.

But on this night, Notre Dame proved it belongs in any discussion that involves the top 65 teams in the country.

"The best birthday present I could ever ask for," he said.

Indeed, a present all NCAA Tournament-starved Irish fans have been waiting for also.

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