Now, This Is A Homecoming

NEW YORK – Last January 23, Mike Brey sat behind an eight-foot table in a cramped interview room below the north stands of Madison Square Garden . He had lost his point guard the day before, a Big East Conference game that night, and the weight of the world seemed to be crashing down on him.

A little more than 11 months later, Brey sat at that very same table. The guard, Kyle McAlarney, was back in his starting line-up, and he played a tremendous role in a key early-season victory. This time, the coach was beaming.

"I didn't know it was going to be this great, this soon," Brey smiled.

Indeed, this was a very special night for Notre Dame. McAlarney scored the last nine Irish points of the game – finishing with 18 overall – as Brey's team defeated No. 25 Kansas State, 68-59, at the Jimmy V Classic in Gotham .

Madison Square Garden wasn't packed – the famous "blue seats" in the balcony were completely vacant – but it was still a storybook setting. By McAlarney's estimation, at least 250 friends and family traveled over the Verrazano Bridge to watch the best high school guard ever to come out of Staten Island . They came from New York's smallest borough to watch hit his trademark three-point jumper, and McAlarney delivered one of the biggest of his career – a dagger from the top-of-the-key to give Notre Dame a 64-59 lead with 1:32 to play.

"When that ball was in the air," Brey said, "I'm thinking, ‘C'mon, it's only fitting that this goes in.'"

It did, and Notre Dame had a critical non-conference victory. More importantly, McAlarney has regained his pride in his hometown.

"I love this building," McAlarney said later in a hallway just steps from the Knicks locker-room. "The aura of this place, especially right here where we're standing, is something. The history. I'm glad I'm part of it now."

You don't have to be taken through McAlarney's story at length. He was arrested for marijuana possession last December, and was suspended from the University on January 22. In a very cruel irony, he was suspended on the very day Notre Dame was traveling to New York to meet St. John's in the Garden.

Not surprisingly, Notre Dame lost to St. John's .

McAlarney and his family did some soul searching, and ultimately determined it was worth returning to South Bend to seek redemption.

"I'm so happy for him right now," said Tory Jackson, McAlarney's backcourt mate. "He was out here early and you could tell he was totally locked in."

McAlarney wasn't supposed to be the big story on this night. This was the Garden debut of Kansas State freshman phenom Michael Beasley. The 6-10, 235-pound Beasley didn't disappoint, with 19 points and 13 rebounds, but he didn't possess any magic in the final 2:24.

McAlarney did.

It was 59-57 Irish when Beasley traveled more than 25 feet from the hoop.

McAlarney made it really hurt with a smart drive to the basket for two.

After Beasley made two free throws with 1:47 remaining, Luke Harangody (team-high 19 points and 14 rebounds) missed on a muscle move. Zach Hillesland got his hand on the rebound and directed it out to a very receptive McAlarney at the top-of-the-key. Splash for a five-point lead.

Kansas State – big, fast, athletic, but oh, so young – couldn't get organized enough and Notre Dame made sure McAlarney and only McAlarney had the ball in his hands the final minute. He made four-of-four free throws while his name was chanted in unison from the 200 level.

"This is a Notre Dame town now," said Brey.

The Irish are now 6-2 with a victory over a major conference team. Kansas State dropped to 5-3 and Brey believes this will become an even more impressive win as the months pass.

"By mid-January, that team is really going to be in gear," Brey said of the Wildcats, who start three freshmen and have a frightening sixth man in 6-6. 220-pound frosh Bill Walker (14 points, six rebounds).

Notre Dame began building what it hopes will be a 2007-08 success story with this victory. Short of an 11- or 12-win Big East season, it would have been difficult to earn an NCAA Tournament berth without a single victory over a major conference foe. In the four seasons the Irish have made the tournament in the Brey-era, they went 10-6 against the majors. Lose this one, and the final ledger for this season would have read 0-3, with the other setbacks coming to Baylor and Georgia Tech.

But McAlarney, Harangody (a stud in the first-half particularly) and Jackson (12 points, five assists) wouldn't let that happen. It wasn't a flawless effort – Notre Dame only shot 38-percent from the field and had more turnovers (15) than assists (12) – but it reserved its strength and swagger for the proper moments.

And now the Irish can come home and celebrate in style. Northern Illinois (2-6) visits Saturday and Notre Dame will be heavily favored to set a new school record for consecutive Joyce Center victories, 25.

And while that should be a very special night at home for the Irish, it doesn't have a chance in topping Kyle McAlarney's triumphant return to New York .

(Alan Tieuli is the Editor-in-Chief of IrishEyes Magazine)


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