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Taking it for granted

Matt Lozar | Tuesday, November 25, 2003

It wasn’t how close it was at the end that surprised Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey more Monday night, but his team’s 57-33 advantage early in the second half.

“Quite frankly, I was shocked we were up as big as we were on them at times. I kept looking at the scoreboard twice because I didn’t think we would ever get that much breathing room on them,” Brey said. “I thought it was going to be just like it was for the last seven minutes for 40 minutes.”

Using an inspired defensive effort to build what appeared to be comfortable margin for the first 25 minutes of the game, the Irish held on Monday night against Northern Illinois and prevailed 74-65 in Notre Dame’s season opener.

“It’s a good win for us because we beat a very good team tonight. I expected game pressure on us,” Brey said. “I thought we defended really well for 40 minutes, which really helped us win the game.”

The Irish jumped out to an early 10-0 advantage – a combination of a high defensive intensity and poor shooting from the Huskies. In the first half, the Huskies only shot 27.5 percent while the Irish had seven steals and five blocks.

Early in the second half, the Irish looked to put this game away by scoring 13 of the half’s first 18 points, building a 24 point lead.

But then the Irish had a letdown and stopped scoring. Over the last 14 minutes, 47 seconds, the Irish had one basket – a Torin Francis slam-dunk off a missed jumper by Torrian Jones.

“There may have been some of [a letdown], I don’t know why because this is a heck of a basketball team. They are a tough match-up,” Brey said. “I’m pleased with what we did overall defensively. Offensively we could have been a little more efficient in the second half and paid a little more attention to detail.”

The Huskies methodically cut down on the Irish lead, making baskets while the Irish could only connect from the free throw line. But the Irish connected on enough of their free throws and Northern Illinois couldn’t make enough 3-pointers to pull the upset.

“Another couple of 3’s might have made a difference,” Northern Illinois coach Rob Judson said. “To come in here and be successful against a team like Notre Dame, you need to make 3’s and keep them off the free throw line.

“We were close.”

Francis dominated down low, registering game-highs in points (24) and rebounds (19). He was able to use his big height advantage over the Northern Illinois defenders and have a great game to open the season.

“I just used the preseason to come out strong in those games to build up some momentum for the actual season and when it counted. That was my goal,” Francis said. “I had to use the height mismatch to my advantage. They couldn’t really hold me on defense and I just kept taking it at them.”

The Huskies out rebounded the Irish 53-43 and had 25 offensive rebounds. Brey felt his team had to guard the 3-point line and give up some things on the inside. For the game, the Huskies only shot 4-of-17 from behind the arc.

Chris Thomas and Chris Quinn, along with Francis, were the only Notre Dame players to score in double digits. Thomas scored 17 while Quinn had 18.

Despite scoring only 17 points, 15 on free throws, in the game’s last 14:47, the Irish feel Monday night was something they can build on later in the season.

“I think that’s good for this team to get in game situations like that down the stretch, it puts hair on your chest,” Jordan Cornette said. “The guys being able to perform under pressure like that is a great way to start the season.”