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Irish still have some growing up

Andrew Soukup | Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Sometime in the future, Mike Brey should gather his team around a big-screen television, pop in a tape of the last 15 minutes of Monday’s Notre Dame-Northern Illinois tilt, look each player in the eye and say, “Gentlemen, that is NOT how you finish a game.”

Then he should pause, dramatically, and open his mouth again. “Gentlemen, that is NOT how you finish a game.”

Let’s review. With 14:47 left in the game, Torin Francis had just lofted a shot into the basket to give Notre Dame a 24-point lead over a Northern Illinois team expected to give the Irish much more of a fight.

At that point, Francis might have shrugged his shoulders had he known that he would only score one more basket in the game – a tip-dunk off a Torrian Jones missed layup.

But Francis certainly couldn’t have expected that that putback would have been Notre Dame’s only field goal for the final 14:47 of the game.

No, that isn’t a typo. Notre Dame scored just one basket the final quarter of the game.

“We just got lazy,” the soft-spoken sophomore said.

While authorities sent out search parties for Notre Dame’s normally prolific offense, Northern Illinois slowly clawed its way back from the brink of utter humiliation to actually make a 24-point game into one where Brey couldn’t empty his bench. The Huskies drew as close as six points with 40 seconds before Notre Dame put the game away with free-throw shooting.

“We had to do things at the end, call a timeout and get the ball in against pressure, make some free throws, that’s all good things,” Brey said, leaving unspoken the fact that with a lead as big as the Irish had, they had no business facing game pressure in the first place.

Of course, the Irish faced first-game jitters. Of course, Notre Dame’s defense stepped up where its offense didn’t to keep the Huskies at arm’s length. Of course, it’s tough to play with the same intensity when the score is 0-0 as it is when you’re holding a lead the size of an NBA shot clock. Of course, the Irish still stumbled away with a win against a top mid-major program that’s going to look very good on the resume in March.

And of course, the Irish still have work to do.

One can easily to attribute the erosion of Thursday’s lead to several things, but first, remember that the Irish have three players – Jordan Cornette, Chris Quinn and Torrian Jones – who have only been role players in Notre Dame’s past. Now, that trio is expected to become 30-minute figureheads each game. As part of their adjustment process, they’ll have to get used to finding the hammer to nail a team in the coffin, or the Irish might start lose games they should otherwise win.

Point to Thomas, too, started hoisting early shots instead of managing the game as the Irish started decomposing. He also struggled at times to bring the ball up the court against the Huskies’ quick guards, and his teammates didn’t help him out much when he did get across the half-court line, either.

“When we were up 24, we just got complacent,” Thomas said. “We took a good team for granted by the way we were playing at the time.”

To get nit-picky at the second-half breakdown – as ugly as it was – ignores the solid first-half burst that helped give the Irish their monstrous lead in the first place and the stellar defense that helped them keep the lead until the final horn sounded. And in all fairness, Notre Dame was never in serious jeopardy of losing once they built their big lead.

Aside from the offensive woes, Notre Dame showed it could consistently shut down a foe on the defensive side of the court, as they held the sharp shooting Huskies to just 23.5 percent. Francis controlled the boards despite receiving minimal help on the glass from his teammates. And constant defensive pressure in the first half led to three straight steals in the half’s final minute.

The early-season games will be the time when Notre Dame can find its identity as a team and former role players can adjust to the spotlight. If anything, the game pressure might have been good for Cornette, Quinn and Jones, who had to – and turned back – a lengthy charge at the end of the game. Because everyone in the Joyce Center knows the Irish will have to do it again later this year.

In time, Notre Dame’s role players-turned-starters will learn to adjust, and it’s a good thing they’re learning to adjust against the Northern Illinois’s on their schedule than the Indianas who loom much later. But in the wake of Monday’s game, it’s not hard to wonder if Brey drove away from the Joyce Center muttering one sentence over and over.

“Gentlemen, that is NOT how you finish a game.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Andrew Soukup at asoukup@nd.edu.