When a team accounts for the first 14 points of a game and rips off a 20-2 run to start the contest, it's obvious that it's going to be difficult to stop the squad. Tuesday night, that's exactly what the Irish did, making it 40 straight home victories at the Joyce Center. Head coach Mike Brey has seen this sort of play out of Ayers before, and has repeatedly begged him to display it on the court. Dating back to Notre Dame's pre-season tune up in Ireland, Brey has been after Ayers for this type of play.
"Yeah, he was very aggressive in Ireland," Brey said. "There's no question. I don't think he's been aggressive enough in Maui, in our last two games and I've addressed that with him between now and since then. I thought he turned down some stuff and we really need him to be aggressive. And I talked to him and I got on him pretty hard Saturday. After the Furman game, he came out and hunted a little more and his teammates get on him too. He turned one down after getting off to a great start early in this game, and I didn't even need to get to him. Kyle [McAlarney] got to him. We're going to need that weapon so hopefully he helps with that."
Even without reigning Big East Player of the Year in Luke Harangody, who is battling a case of pneumonia, the Irish displayed an up-tempo offensive attack led by Ayers, who came off of his career-high 19-point performance against Furman on Sunday. He continued right where he left off, starting the contest 3-of-3 from the field and 4-of-4 from three-point range.
"My teammates were finding me with the ball and once I hit one shot, I kept rolling," Ayers said. "We've just been shooting the ball well lately, especially with Kyle. It just felt like tonight, and the last game, I wanted to pick up off of that. I don't know, I just had a great feel every time I'd follow through, I knew it was going in."
Luke Zeller opened up the scoring for the Irish with a three-pointer, assisted by Ayers. Then the senior from Blue Bell, Penn. connected on an eight-foot jump shot to keep the offensive attack rolling. Kyle McAlarney kept the momentum going, draining a three-pointer to put Notre Dame up eight. The offense didn't stop there, as Ayers then proceeded to net back-to-back threes, putting the Irish up 14-0. Coyote center Steve Smith finally put South Dakota on the board with a baby hook, but Notre Dame answered back with another pair of long-range threes from Zeller and Ayers, putting the score at 20-2 in favor of the Irish.
McAlarney showed why he earned a spot in the Big East Honor Roll this past week, netting 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting from the field and going 7-of-13 from downtown. Once it was all said and done, the Irish had drained 19 total three-pointers against South Dakota, both a program and Joyce Center record. For McAlarney, much of the success at shooting the ball is due to the manner in which the Irish took advantage of the zone that South Dakota played for the majority of the game.
"I wasn't surprised," McAlarney said. "We knew that they would play zone and with the shooters we have, with the way we started out the game, I'm not surprised."
Although South Dakota guard Jesse Becker tried to keep it close, Notre Dame continued to pull away every time the senior would heat up. Becker finished the contest with 24 points and proved to be the main Coyote offensive threat. The Irish offense, however, dictated the tempo, and sealed South Dakota's fate.
Notre Dame had built up a 30-point lead heading into halftime, but the Coyotes tried to stage one last surge Tuesday night. With just under nine minutes to go, Becker sliced through the Irish zone to put South Dakota within 19 points. Once again, Notre Dame looked to Ayers to generate some points. The swingman drained a three-pointer to put the score at 81-59. Then Notre Dame used some defensive stops to create some offense. McAlarney drove down the baseline and sunk a finesse running floater, and then buried a three-pointer after a Coyote miss on the other end. Once again Notre Dame stopped South Dakota's offense, and Ayers put the game away with yet another long three, putting the Irish up 89-59 with 8:34 left to play in the second half. This proved to be the nail in the coffin, and it comes to no surprise to Brey.
"It was interesting because we had some guys playing together who hadn't played together much, but I think they needed to," Brey said. "I thought it was good to kind of answer a run, even though we probably weren't threatened to lose the game, but when the starters came back in there was a little bit of pressure of having to concentrate and get some offensive possessions and defensive possessions and get some shots to kind of call the dogs off because we'll be in that position a lot in this building when you have a lead and people make a run and you've got to have a good offensive possession or two to kind of shut them up a little bit."
In a contest such like this, coaching turns out to be a task much easier done, than said — at least to Brey, that is.
"I should have paid for a ticket," Brey said. "Absolutely. What is a ticket in the gold seats? There's a lot of empty ones, hell, I should have paid for one, you know. Maybe somebody could have left me one. I should have paid for a ticket tonight, all I did was sub guys and we got into a rhythm and you know what, when you have an older team like that too, with great leadership, some nights it should be like that, where our older guys kind of run the program for us. I was just trying to keep fresh bodies on the floor and get everybody their minutes and change some defenses every now and then, but it's really fun to watch."
If this Irish squad keeps shooting as accurately as it is, don't be surprised to see a turtleneck-wearing coach doing just that — sitting back and enjoying the spectacle.