The Irish played well in many aspects of their game Thursday, spreading the ball to create a balanced scoring attack, defending the perimeter and low post, as well as an emphasis on rebounding.
In the 68-50 win, Notre Dame had three players in double figures, one of which was Ryan Ayers who came off the bench in the contest. Early on, Notre Dame was sinking its three-point attempts, at one point shooting 75-percent from downtown. Ayers came into the contest in relief of Zach Hillesland who had an excellent defensive effort on Forlain Campbell, limiting him to 0 points on 0-10 shooting in the first half.
Luke Harangody was as solid as ever, picking up 18 points and 14 rebounds for his 18th double-double of the season. The Big East Player of the Year pounded away in the paint for the majority of his points, often benefiting from an extra pass that left him uncovered below the basket. Junior guard Kyle McAlarney, playing in the first NCAA Tournament game of his career, netted 15 points on 3-of-7 shooting from beyond the arc. The shooting guard also went perfect from the stripe, converting on all four of his free throws.
Hillesland, who took care of the swingman Campbell, led the Irish defensive effort in addition to Harangody and Rob Kurz who were responsible for the low block. Although Patriot forward Will Thomas was effective, he was the only George Mason player to cause any actual damage. The senior captain Kurz struggled against Thomas early, but later in the contest regained his form, finishing with four blocked shots.
"One of the things we wanted to get back to was rebounding the basketball better than we did the last four games.," Brey said of his team's effort Thursday night. "And I thought we did that tonight. We had a lot of one-and-done situations. It let us run. It let us get some things in transition."
The Irish outrebounded George Mason 42-31 in Notre Dame's first round game in Denver, 11 of which were offensive boards. Besides Harangody's 14, Hillesland crashed the boards and did an excellent job of boxing out Patriot defenders for rebounds, picking up 11 of his own. Sophomore point guard Tory Jackson continued to play above his 5-foot-11 stature and grabbed eight rebounds over taller George Mason players.
Looking ahead to Washington State, rebounding will once again be a key factor as the Irish look to move into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003. In the Pac-10, the Cougars were ranked nine out of a possible ten in defensive rebounds, and dead last in the offensive category. The Washington State player with the most rebounds per game is its center, Aron Baynes who only manages 5.8 per contest. Forward Robie Cowgill and guard Kyle Weaver each contribute a shade over five boards per game as well, but the Irish should take advantage of the Cougar woes on the rebounding front. If Hillesland, Harangody and Kurz can gain position down low, look for Notre Dame to control the game's rebounding and get some second-chance points off of offensive boards.
When the Cougars have the ball, their guard play dominates the scoring, as they have three members of their backcourt pouring in over ten points per game. Derrick Low leads the effort with 14 per contest, followed by Weaver who nets 12.2 per game. Junior Taylor Rochestie puts in 10.8 points in addition to Baynes' 10.5. Look for Notre Dame to limit at least one of the Cougar guards with Tory Jackson and Hillesland's tight defense. If the Irish can neutralize a pair of the scoring threats, Washington State could be in for a long evening in Denver — the four Cougars are responsible for just over 70-percent of the squad's points.
On the Irish offensive, look for Brey to attempt to get Harangody involved early and often, as well as McAlarney with his outside shot. Although Kurz struggled on the offensive side of the ball against George Mason, look for the senior to hang around the perimeter and sink more of his shots against the Cougars and bounce back from his poor performance Thursday. If the Irish can also secure solid contributions from Jackson, and some bench points from Ayers and Luke Zeller, Notre Dame could be headed into the Regionals for the first time in five years.
After Notre Dame's bitter loss to Winthrop last year, this squad has gained some maturity. "I think last year when we came into this game against Winthrop, I think we were playing not to lose, holding back a little bit," Harangody said. "[Against George Mason] we just went for it. You could see right away with our perimeter shooting, getting right into it, getting off to that big lead, not holding anything back. I think that kind of set the tone for the whole game."
"Dream big dreams." That's all the Irish have to do if they want to keep their run alive.