An early second half run created the necessary breathing room for Notre Dame as the Irish made it 28 in a row at home behind a 77-58 victory over North Florida. In front of a half-filled Joyce Center (the students are on winter break), Rob Kurz and Luke Harangody combined for 45 points to provide the offensive surge as Notre Dame improved to 10-2 on the year. The Irish have now won eight in a row since back-to-back losses to Baylor and Georgia Tech.
What's next? Notre Dame, with the exception of the victory over Kansas State at Madison Square Garden, has feasted off of inferior competition during the win streak. Now comes the tough part and a possible reason for the sluggish first half on Monday. The Irish will host West Virginia on Thursday at the Joyce Center in both team's Big East opener. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM. Notre Dame has another conference home contest two days later versus Connecticut. One thing is for sure: if the Irish have hopes of starting out league play on a positive note, Notre Dame will have to play better than the group did on Monday. But a win it was for the Irish.
"They really played well and played hard," head coach Mike Brey said of the Ospreys. "Some of the reasons we didn't play well was because North Florida played well. It was one of those games where you're not making shots like you have most nights. You have to get back and rely on your defense. That's probably still a work in progress for us.
"There's probably some look ahead to Thursday. I won't deny that. As much as you try to fight that as coach, sometimes human nature says they know what's coming. We have two days to get ready for 18 league games."
In the first half, Notre Dame assisted on all nine made field goals. The problem: the Irish only made nine first half field goals. The Irish usually have been in cruise control by the time the second half begins on the support of strong showings out of the gate. But Notre Dame was not in that mode on Monday against North Florida.
The Irish, playing without six-man Zach Hillesland because of a twisted ankle, scored a season-low 27 points in the first half and the 37.7 shooting percentage from the field was the second lowest of the year. Kyle McAlarney, the team's second leading scorer, shot 0-for-5 in the first half from three-point range and 2-of-11 from the field in the game. The only reason the Ospreys didn't hold the halftime lead was because of their offensive production. North Florida (1-11) hit just 8-of-26 from the field in the first half and committed 12 turnovers to five assists.
In the second half, Notre Dame put together a much better showing on the offensive end of the floor. It wasn't going to take a lot of put away the offensively-challenged Ospreys and a quick run out of the gate accomplished this goal. The Irish went on a 11-0 run to increase a 35-24 lead to 46-24 and essentially finished off North Florida's upset hopes. In the run, critical three-pointers from Luke Zeller and Jonathan Peoples, coupled with a few baskets from Kurz, were the key points needed to get the Irish fans in attendance to start thinking about their New Year's Eve plans.
By shooting 43.9 percent from the field in the contest and 7-of-23 behind the arc, it was imperative the team get production inside and Kurz and Harangody delivered. The strong showing from Kurz was the captain's fourth straight game in double digits and second in a row leading the team in points. The senior forward totaled 23 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field. Kurz's 13 rebounds also gave the captain his second straight double-double and fourth of the season. Harangody, the team's leading scorer, added 22 points in the paint area, 16 of them in the second half, to continue his dominant play. The one-two punch down low will be critical to Notre Dame's success in Big East play.
Another player heating up just in time for conference action is Tory Jackson. The sophomore point guard finished up with zero points. But Jackson stayed true to his No. 1 job: distributing the basketball. The sophomore ended with 10 assists to only three turnovers and pulled down eight rebounds. It was Jackson's second double-digit assist performance in the past three games. In the game, Notre Dame finished with 24 assists on 25 made field goals and it was Jackson leading the charge.
"He's pretty secure with how he plays and finding his niche," Brey said of Jackson. "I'll take that any night. Whenever we play, he needs to get into the lane and him being able to dump it out is critical for us."
NORTH FLORIDA 58: Hammonds 5-13, 2-2 12; Januska 6-15, 0-0 14; Grimball 4-12, 1-3 9; Jones 2-6, 2-3 8; Cecil 3-6, 0-0 8; Timberlake 3-9, 0-0 7; Riley 0-3, 0-0 0; Sparkes 0-0, 0-0 0; Yousefzadeh 0-0, 0-0 0; Wood 0-0, 0-0 0; Groothuis 0-0, 0-0 0; Totals: 23-64, 5-9 58.
NOTRE DAME 77: Kurz 7-11, 6-8 23; Harangody 8-15, 6-6 22; Ayers 3-6 2-2 10; McAlarney 2-11, 4-6 9; Peoples 2-5, 2-3 6; Zeller 3-7, 0-0 7; Nash 0-0, 0-0 0; Jackson 0-2, 0-0 0; Abromaitis 0-0, 0-0 0; Totals: 25-57, 20-27 77.