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Irish needed an early scare

Pat Leonard | Monday, November 22, 2004

First comes the preseason talk. Then begins the in-season walk. As Notre Dame found out Friday night, that walk is not an easy one.

But the Irish are safe after their first regular season game. And struggling for a half against Harvard may not have been a bad thing.

Notre Dame’s first test – a home game against an Ivy League team that finished 4-23 last season – exposed areas of concern, even for a team whose senior point guard called for 30 regular season wins.

The Crimson out-rebounded the Irish and outscored them in the paint. Harvard had more second half points and a better field-goal percentage.

The most puzzling statistic at the game’s final was the score, 66-59. How could Notre Dame, ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press poll and No. 21 in the ESPN/USA Today poll, only beat Harvard by seven points?

Simple.

It was Notre Dame’s first game.

Dennis Latimore was making his first appearance on the court since 2002.

There were only two Irish players in double figures. And among other reasons, perhaps the most significant: Harvard was not that bad.

“I don’t think I’m mad that it wasn’t a blowout,” Notre Dame forward Jordan Cornette said. “I guess if we had performed to the level that I had expected us to perform to, I think it might have been a blowout, just because I think we do have the more talented players, but Harvard played a heck of a game out there.”

Notre Dame does have more talent. But the Crimson’s two leading scorers, forward Matt Stehle and center Brian Cusworth, outplayed the Irish frontcourt and almost negated a woeful Harvard backcourt performance (19 turnovers).

Cusworth exhibited flashes of excellence that have appeared in only two other players in the past two seasons at the Joyce Center: in 2002, Marquette’s Dwayne Wade; in 2003, Syracuse’s Hakim Warrick.

Meanwhile, Irish shooting guard Chris Quinn had the best game of any of his teammates, scoring 20 points and hitting all seven of his fouls shots. Harvard coach Frank Sullivan even called Quinn one of the best players in the country.

But Quinn’s efforts on offense were only good enough because Notre Dame pulled itself together for the final three minutes.

And after the game, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey was not mad, but he was not happy.

“If we average 65 points a game, we’re dead,” Brey said. “We’ve got to score more. It’s real simple.”

Being an offensive team that thrives on motion and shooting, the Irish can rarely afford hereafter to play poor offensive basketball. But Friday’s game may have helped the Irish get a bad egg out of their system.

“[A close game] keeps everybody honest, but I don’t think our guys got ahead of themselves at all,” Brey said. “They know this is a long road, and I told them, ‘You kind of start building your resume tonight.'”

Ultimately, that is just what Notre Dame did.

For every top-25 blowout Friday night (No 10 Michigan State 104 Florida A&M 72), there was a closer call like Notre Dame’s.

For every highly-ranked team that humbled its opponent (No. 19 N.C. State 100, East Carolina 66), there was a top squad who kept it closer than they would have liked (No. 25 Stanford 93 San Francisco 83).

And for every top-25 scare (No. 1 Kansas 68, Vermont 61), there was a lauded program with two-preseason All-Americans that saw things fall apart (Santa Clara 77, No. 3 North Carolina 66).

At the end of the night, the No. 1 team in the country had one loss. Notre Dame had one win. And as far as an optimistic Thomas is concerned, that means his team only needs 29 more.

The opinions in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Pat Leonard at pleonard@nd.edu