On The Road With John Rooke: Notre Dame

What if? Two words that the Providence Friars must be asking themselves, in the wake of a disappointing 81-78 loss at Notre Dame on Thursday night. Normally, players and coaches don't like to look back, instead preferring to only look ahead to the next game, and the next opportunity for a win on the schedule.

This game, however, isn't easily dismissed. And perhaps, some lessons might be learned for the future if they can step back, and look at why they lost a game that could have been won.

The game began with the Friars asserting themselves on offense, attacking Notre Dame's interior defense with consistent feeds to Jonathan Kale (15 first half points) and Herbert Hill (10 first half points). As a result, the Irish found themselves in some trouble as bullish freshman forward Luke Harangody picked up two quick fouls, forcing the Irish to regroup by looking to the bench for help. Little-used sophomore Zach Hillesland stepped in.

And then he proceeded to step on the Friars' hopes.

The concern for the PC defense before the game was ND's three-point range, so the plan was to extend to their shooters (Colin Falls, Russell Carter) and make someone else step up. They did limit the Irish to only 2-10 from outside the arc in the first half. But as Notre Dame worked the ball into the middle of the Friars' zone defense, Hillesland found his way to the ball, and scored eight points in the opening period on two free throw line jumpers and a couple of reverse lay ups underneath the basket. When he wasn't open, he managed to find teammates (like Rob Kurz, with eight first half points) cutting along the baseline, who also managed to do damage – and what could have been a big lead at halftime for Providence instead was a mere four-point margin, 42-38.

Like the loss last Saturday at Pittsburgh, where the Friars also led at halftime, the second half did not begin well for Providence. After PC scored the first basket of the period, ND answered with seven straight points to take their first lead of the game at 45-44. Senior guard and leading scorer Russell Carter (17.8 ppg) became a factor from this point on, knocking down 3 of 4 three pointers in the second half, and scoring 13 of his 15 points for the game in the half. Carter did not start the game for the Irish in the first half (right hip flexor), but he did finish it.

He also had help from the Fighting Irish defense. ND managed to cut off the PC passing lanes by extending their man-to-man defense, and even with several one-on-one battles, they also managed to outwork the Friars on the backboards (32-30 rebound margin) and keep the Friar guards in check – forcing them to work hard to get the ball inside, and not get clean looks outside.

Was it the Irish defense stepping up, or the Friar offense letting up? You can probably make an argument either way – but the numbers tell the same story. With a 53-49 PC lead and 14:43 remaining in the game, Notre Dame began a decisive 21-6 run over the next 11 minutes to take control. The Friars did manage to make things interesting in the final 1:36, scoring 16 points on a variety of jumpers and drives to the basket, but ND finally put it away at the free throw line to improve to a conference-best 16-0 at home this season.

"Why" the Fighting Irish made their decisive run in that 11 minute span is open to debate. ND pressured the Friar offense on the perimeter – freshman guard Tory Jackson played perhaps the best on-the-ball defense against Sharaud Curry that the team has seen played against him this year. Hill tired out on the offensive end, thanks to ND's big bodies constantly banging him down low. Weyinmi Efejuku did not even attempt a shot from the floor until the final few minutes of the game. 13 PC turnovers in the second half led to 17 Notre Dame points…and yes, there was also a big disparity at the free throw line.

The Fighting Irish took 25 free throws in the half, and made 15. The Friars took one, and missed it.

What if?

It's a good question. Answering the question is the hard part.

Game Notes:
Hill led the Friars with 18 points, and chipped in a career best seven assists, but managed only three rebounds. The physical Irish play in the paint took its' toll in the second half, as Hill left short several field goal attempts that found their way into the basket earlier in the game…Jonathan Kale was certainly a bright spot. Kale scored 15 of his 17 points in the first half, before ND decided to pay him attention defensively. And freshman Brian McKenzie hit for a career high 16 points off of the bench, 11 in the second half (which he started in place of Efejuku)…The Irish had five players reach double figures in scoring, with senior Colin Falls leading the way – 16 points in playing all 40 minutes. He did not set the school record for career three-point field goals made, as he still needs 2 more (302 total) to own the mark. Carter and Kurz (outside & inside) each had 15 points. First-half hero Hillesland finished with 14 points, matching his season high, and had eight rebounds…PC outshot Notre Dame from the floor, 52.5% to 51%. It was just the third time this season the Friars lost a game in which they shot better than their opponents…the free throw disparity was one thing (29-10 in attempts for the game), but ND also managed to score 23 points off of 18 Providence turnovers. PC scored 15 points off of 14 Irish miscues…the officiating crew of Pat Driscoll, Bob Donato and J. D. Collins were soundly booed by the partisan crowd at the end of the first half, and had to be escorted to their locker room. Booed loudly again at the start of the second half, strangely, Irish fortunes began to turn. Coincidence? Free throws at half time favored the Friars, nine attempts to four. It was 25 to one, in favor of ND, in the second half…Driscoll was actually a last-minute replacement for Tim Higgins on the game crew, as Higgins was caught in the messy storm that shut down most of I-80 in New Jersey Wednesday night, and he never made it to South Bend…the Friars were not without their travel mishaps as well, although unknown to most of the team. The charter plane that brought PC to Indiana blew a tire during the landing on the snowy runway Wednesday night, and the crew did a magnificent job of making sure there was no trouble. In fact, few in the travel party were even aware of the mishap…South Bend was blanketed with almost a foot of snow in the 24 hours preceding the Friars' arrival, and took on another 3-6 inches during the day on Thursday…Delray Brooks was in attendance at the Joyce Center, and joined the radio broadcast at halftime. Brooks is coaching and teaching at a nearby private school, and says he plans to be in Providence for the 20-year reunion of the '87 Final Four Friars in May…a camera crew accompanied the team on the trip from Providence, in an effort to pick up some interviews from ex-players and coaches in preparing a video piece for the Final Four reunion. They managed to talk with Brooks, and also spoke with ND assistant coach Sean Kearney, who was a volunteer assistant for Rick Pitino on that Friar staff in '87…some of the Friar travel party toured snow-covered Notre Dame Stadium on campus Thursday morning, and also went through the College Football Hall of Fame, which is situated right across the street from the South Bend Marriott, where the team stayed. The interactive area, where you could actually kick field goals, was a particularly popular spot…Irish sophomore guard Kyle McAlarney, suspended from the team and from the University after an arrest for marijuana possession, is back home in New York, taking classes on Long Island this semester. If all goes well, he is expected to return to Notre Dame next fall.

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