Defenseless Irish Floored

It was a solid day in Notre Dame's grid nation, but the Irish veterans on the hardwood took a night off in New Jersey. The six-game Big East winning streak is history and now the Irish must re-tool before Sunday's showdown with first-place Pittsburgh. IrishEyes Magazine Managing Editor Alan Tieuli provides the grisly details courtside from the Meadowlands.

Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes™

February 5, 2003

Defensive Letdowns
Floor Disappointed Irish

By Alan Tieuli
IrishEyes Magazine

E. RUTHERFORD, NJ (IE) – The Leprechaun Legion has a job to do on Sunday.  Storm the floor with the same kind of post-game jubilation the Seton Hall student section showed Wednesday night at the Meadowlands. 

But, first, the Notre Dame basketball team has to hold up its end of the bargain.  It needs to play with defensive intensity, offensive intelligence and character to upset a highly-rated Pittsburgh team. 

Just like Seton Hall did to the No. 10 Irish in this one.  The 10-9 Pirates, winners of five of their six five Big East Conference games, never trailed the final 24:53 of the contest in a 78-72 victory before 9,024 surprised and satisfied North Jersey fans.   Notre Dame's six-game Big East Conference winning streak – which started with a Jan. 12 home victory over these same Pirates – ended and the Irish also slipped a game in the loss column behind West Division leading Pittsburgh. 

"That could cost us the Big East championship," said somber point guard Chris Thomas, who left the Meadowlands with 14 points and a bruised ego, courtesy of his Pirate counterpart, Andre Barrett.   The junior looked All-Big East, scoring 24 points with six sharp assists. 

But, then again, Seton Hall could have been St. Peter's on this night and it might not have mattered.  The Irish simply didn't defend.  The hosts shot 53-percent from the field (30-for-57) and the degree of difficulty on the shots was minimal. 

"It's not like they were nailing them with a hand in their face  They were nailing them open," said forward Dan Miller, who accounted himself well with a Big East-career high 21 points. "We can't come out and expect a team to roll over." 

Seton Hall made an alarmingly consistent 15-of-29 shots in the first-half, 15-of-28 in the second, and five-of-seven overall from three-point line.  Sophomore transfer Andre Sweet – a Duke transfer – looked like Dahntay Jones (a Garden Stater from Rutgers who transferred the other way), slashing to the hoop for 17 points while grabbing seven rebounds.  Sophomore guard John Allen had 15 well timed points. 

The Pirates deserve praise for their performance, and Notre Dame received a reminder that when it does not defend, it will get beat.  The Irish have allowed the opposition to shoot better than 50-percent four times this year, and lost all four – Creighton (.620), Pittsburgh (.527) and Kentucky (.523) preceding this one. 

"I don't remember us taking a charge or getting on the floor for a loose ball," said head coach Mike Brey. "And there were a lot of drives." 

As a result, Notre Dame dropped to 18-4 overall.  It will be able to move back into first in the West – and likely sustain its Top 10 ranking – with a victory Sunday.  

"This group has been great about learning from things and bouncing back," said Brey. "The law of averages sometimes catches up with you." 

There's really no positive news out of this one.  On top of the less than ferocious defense, Notre Dame struggled mightily offensively.  Its 43-percent shooting percentage wasn't all that bad, but the Irish were in rush mode often and didn't get to the foul-line.   

In the six game Big East winning streak, Notre Dame attempted an average of 36.3 free throws per game.  In this game, the Irish had just 13.  They did not achieve the bonus in the second half until the final 2.2 seconds. 

"We had to have a good screen for every look," said Thomas. "And we didn't have good screeners or good cutters.  We didn't have a good offense period.  When you combine that offense with a terrible defense you are never going to win." 

Thomas had 14 points and six assists, but also six turnovers.  Matt Carroll had, by his standards, a sub-par night with 16 points (six-for-16 shooting, one-for-six on threes).  Worse, however, the pair couldn't provide an offensive calm. 

"(Carroll) forced a few things to try and get us going," said Brey. "That's a Catch-22 with him and Chris. You got to let them go, because they have jump started us.  Tonight a couple of times they forced some things and it hurt us." 

One of those times came at the 15-minute mark of the second-half.  Down 49-44 after a Kelly Whitney basket, Carroll took a long jumper with 29 on the shot clock.  It missed and Seton Hall converted on transition.  Brey, usually unflappable on the bench, clearly showed his displeasure. 

Notre Dame did close to within 66-65 with 3:39 remaining on a Carroll lay-in off a terrific feed from Miller.  But Barrett hit the hoop of the game a minute later, a 26-foot three with the shot clock near expiration.  The Irish never again got closer than three. 

All that was left was the student celebration on the floor of this massive (20,029) facility, the last non-Dome to host a Final Four.  It left Thomas with a nasty déjà vu. 


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