Throughout the first half, the contest was a tight affair, characterized by both teams trading baskets. Contrary to the pre-season exhibition games, Notre Dame got off to a rapid start out of the opening gate. 10 seconds into the season, Zach Hillesland found preseason first-team All-American forward Luke Harangody for a baby hook and the first points of the contest. The junior led all scorers in the contest with 30 points and 14 rebounds for his first double-double of the year. Head coach Mike Brey spoke of the performance Harangody had against the Spartans, although much of his success is attributed to his teammates.
"You know, what was great, I think, our group, it's kind of like how are they going to play us because we do have a lot of offensive weapons," Brey said. "They obviously took away our perimeter, so they weren't going to help much and I thought he did a great job, but his teammates kept going to him and you keep going with what's working. He also got a bunch in transition, and I didn't think we did that as well in the exhibitions, getting the big guys running, so we tried to concentrate on that. I think they'll all run a lot more now, because they got rewarded. But we kind of took what the ‘D' gave us and if he's playing with one guy, we're going to keep throwing it in there and we're going to go to work."
Hillesland worked his way into the mix early on, utilizing his mid-range jump shot and an aggressive, slashing philosophy. Because of Notre Dame's propensity to move the ball and use the extra pass, Hillesland converted several key jump shots early on. One aspect that allowed the senior forward to find open spaces was his ability to move without the ball and lose his defender. Working the baseline early on, senior point guard Kyle McAlarney found Hillesland wide open underneath the basket for an easy layup to put the Irish up 6-2. Hillesland finished the contest with 13 points and eight boards. Brey went with the decision to start Hillesland over Luke Zeller not because of a demotion of his senior center, but because of Hillesland's speed.
"Yeah, I thought: faster, earlier," Brey said. "And this is absolutely no demotion of Luke Zeller. I told him, I said, ‘Luke I want to try and start of a little quicker, we run better earlier,' and I thought we did do that. We got into a good offensive rhythm and we were moving good. I give Luke Zeller a lot of credit, and I said, ‘you're going to get your minutes,' and what he did tonight, that's how he's been practicing. He's so confident right now and I'm really happy with the way he's playing and he deserves a good senior year."
Zeller's response off the bench was just what the Irish out of the center. Finishing with 18 points on 4-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc, the senior was feeling the shooter's touch the entire night. For Zeller, it was all about getting in a comfortable rhythm and the ability for his teammates to find him.
"I mean, I just try to get a lot of repetitions," he said. "I wish that last one would have went down, but I'm just trying to do everything I can, and get in a good spot before I get the ball and my teammates are giving me the ball in the right spots and it's easy playing with a team like this."
Brey implemented a full-court man-to-man press to put pressure on the Spartan ball handlers and force Irish opportunities. After Harangody hit a pair of free throws, Notre Dame came out in the press allowing Jonathan Peoples to pick up a steal and eventually lead to a Harangody three-point play putting the Irish up 39-31. The Irish victory displayed a case in which defensive pressure could directly jumpstart the offense. Notre Dame picked up 33 total points off of Spartan takeaways. Coach Brey spoke about the ability of the defense to get an offensive attack on its feet.
"The way we run and the way that whoever gets their hands on the turnover can pretty much bring it on a speed dribble, you don't have to look to get it to a guard. I think that's really a strength of ours: we have forwards who can blow it out there. [Tyrone] Nash, [Carleton] Scott, Hillesland, even ‘Gody' can blow out of there with a dribble. That's really the hardest thing to get back there and stop and when you get guys who can blow out of there with a turnover or a defensive rebound you can go."
Although it seemed as though USC Upstate would have the last possession of the 1st half, tight Irish defense forced the Spartans into a travel and gave the ball back to Notre Dame with just over five seconds left. Point guard Tory Jackson received the inbounds and charged down the court finding a wide open Zeller who drained a three-pointer as time expired, putting the Irish up 44-33 headed into the locker room.
One stat that Brey was happy to see at the half was the 14 assists with 15 field goals. After leading the nation in assists last season, Brey and the Irish have prided themselves as a unit that shares the ball and is offensively based off of ball movement. At the end of the contest, Notre Dame had amassed 25 total assists, allowing four players to reach double figures in points, with McAlarney rounding out the group with 10. The NCAA awarded Notre Dame with a commemorative plaque for leading the nation in assists and Brey has utilized it as a symbol for team unity and motivation.
"The first team meeting, that's the only thing I brought in," Brey said. "It's something that they want that feedback on that, they really do. And they're proud of that identity. I think that only two teams have repeated since the 80's and we'd like to be the third."
Although USC Upstate kept it manageable in the first half, Notre Dame came out of the locker room with an offensive energy that spelled the Spartans' fate. Harangody made the first of his free throws with 20 seconds into the half, but missed the second. Once the rebound ended up in his hands, he drove to the hoop and worked his way to a layup. Ryan Ayers then stole the ball, going on a fast break for an uncontested dunk. On the next play, the full-court press brought another Spartan turnover, benefiting Ayers who nailed a mid-range jumper from the corner. En route to a 15-2 run that put the score at 59-35, the Irish also got a pair of three-pointers from McAlarney and Harangody.
Notre Dame charged on, and with some fireworks on display. No one made a bigger splash than Scott who energized the crowd with three dunks late in the game. After a put-back dunk off of a Nash miss, Scott stole the ball and went in for an uncontested slam on a fast break to put the score at 86-53. In the waning minutes, Peoples lofted a pass over the paint to Scott, who flew through a crowd and slammed the alley-oop home.
"That one dunk that he had, we don't see him bring the ball up much and taking it coast-to-coast, that was definitely a highlight and it's definitely one he'll have in the back of his mind for his whole career," Hillesland said of Scott's three dunks. "But it was good to see him get in there and be effective and efficient."
Next up, the Irish travel to western Los Angeles to face Loyola Marymount Friday on a west-coast trip culminating with the EA Sports Maui Invitational.