Although the Blue Demons would create several runs to close the gap between the squads, Notre Dame eventually pulled out the 89-80 win to extend its winning streak at the Joyce Center to 33 games. The Blue Demons (9-12, 4-5) fall to eleventh in the Big East standings while the Irish (16-4, 6-2) remain the lone occupiers of second place in the conference.
It became clear that Irish head coach Mike Brey wanted his offense to go through Harangody in the opening minutes to provide his squad with confidence and momentum. The sophomore forward heeded to the call and performed to his typically aggressive and relentless play in the post, tallying 29 points as well as 14 rebounds, picking up his 11th double-double of the season. The second-year forward is making his case for Big East player of the year, and could eventually receive the honor if his play continues at this pace.
As well as national recognition building around the budding star forward, his coaches and teammates know the contributions he provides the team. "I hope everybody appreciates what he does," coach Brey said. "He is a great scorer. What is great about him is that he just wants to win and he is a great teammate. You can throw four guys at him and he will break their will. He has done it to guys in practice, to guys on the other team. He sets a great tone."
Zach Hillesland believes he could actually be posting better numbers — a thought that scares the junior forward. "Its scary, but he probably could put up better numbers," he said. "We see him in practice so we know what he can do. He's just such a powerful low-post presence, that it helps open up things for the other guys."
Against DePaul, the Irish went to a version of the triangle offense in which one of the guards fed Harangody the ball. A swingman would then cut to the basket giving the sophomore a chance to either feed his teammates the ball, or resort to his devastating baby hook in the paint. Harangody often times did dish the ball, as he claimed three assists in the game, making it easier for his teammates to get involved. Reading into the forward's expressions after the game, he attributes Notre Dame's recent success to confidence and team chemistry. "We have a lot of confidence right now," Harangody said. "We're all gelling so well. It's just so much fun to go out there and play with our group of guys, especially at home."
Clearly, Harangody and his teammates bought into coach Brey's advice and game planning regarding the week. "It's a great week for us," Harangody said. "Coach told us it was time for us to make a move and we took advantage of it. From a personal standpoint, the confidence level is very high, and it's been a lot of fun."One aspect any spectator can see regarding Harangody's play is his determined will to finish strong — a will he picked up playing backyard basketball against his family. "It feels like I'm playing in the backyard again," Harangody said. "I used to play against my brother all the time and he would overpower me so I just learned to keep going up strong. I also played my dad too, and he's a big guy. He used to beat on me all the time so I learned to hold my own."
*** Mike Brey recently altered his starting line-up against Villanova in which Zach Hillesland replaced Ryan Ayers at the small forward position to attempt to provide an offensive spark. The results: so far, so good. The Irish are 3-0 since Brey made the switch, and it appears as though both Hillesland and Ayers have found their groove and stepped up their play.
After losses to Marquette and Georgetown, Notre Dame went back to the drawing board, and the results are becoming evident. "It got me into a better rhythm," Hillesland said. "It got me re-focused and now I'm playing very well. We all kind of went through some re-focusing. Not a whole lot has changed. Everybody's still getting their minutes, we're just playing with a lot of confidence."
Hillesland aggressively attacked the man-to-man Blue Demon coverage, making his way into the lane and finishing strong. The junior forward finished 4-of-6 from the field, converted on both attempted free throws to finish with 10 points, while grabbing five rebounds. Ayers came off the bench to provide scoring and balanced attacking centered around his mid-range jump shot. The junior guard finished 4-of-8 from the floor totaling nine points and three boards. Ayers also displayed the ability to pass the ball in transition and look for the open man.
As if Hillesland didn't need any additional motivation, a missed easy lay up early in the game further fueled his desire to finish strong. "The crowd was on the verge of a frenzy until I missed that lay up," Hillesland said. "I told Troy [Jackson] to keep passing me the ball. I told him I would finish. Next time I got down there, I made sure to take it all the way and dunk it home."
*** Much has been made about Notre Dame's 33-game home court winning streak spanning three seasons. One of the aspects making this record streak possible is the energy the crowd produces, and its effect on the team. In another sell-out crowd of 11,418, the fans helped propel the Irish to multiple scoring runs that helped create separation from the Blue Demons.
Coach Brey has been one of the main advocates of increased fan support. "The energy in the building, we can feel it during the game," Brey said. "Our guys feed off it." One instance when the Irish fed off of the crowd energy was when Notre Dame held a three-point lead with 5:16 left in the game. A Ryan Ayers mid-range jumper got the crowd back into it, followed by a defensive stop, which led to a Harangody tip in. Shortly after, Tory Jackson stole the ball, and then subsequently fed a cutting Ayers the ball for an easy dunk, causing the crowd to erupt. Within a matter of seconds, a three-point lead turned into nine. The Irish never looked back.
Sophomore guard Tory Jackson wouldn't have it any other way. "At home we've got our sixth-man," he said. "I love it. Sometimes it gets hard to listen to the team huddles during timeouts, but I love it. There's so much noise out there."