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Irish can’t take wins for granted in Big East

Pat Leonard | Monday, January 17, 2005

With the score tied at 14, Chris Quinn dribbled into his defender and forced a floating jump shot from the left wing. The two players made contact, the ball lofted a few feet in the air and St. John’s grabbed the loose ball.

As the play continued to the opposite end of the floor, Quinn turned to the referee befuddled. He wondered why no foul had been called. He looked like a player on a proven team who expected calls on his home court.

But the whistle stayed silent.

Perhaps it did not occur at that specific moment, but at some point during Notre Dame’s 67-66 win over the Red Storm Saturday, the Irish discovered a bit more about their identity in the Big East.

On the one hand, Notre Dame found out a few things that already had become evident. Colin Falls has become increasingly confident and lethal with his jump shot. The inside game still needs to improve. Russell Carter and Omari Israel look like they will contribute significantly from the bench.

But Notre Dame also found out that even after it challenged Syracuse for 26 strong minutes, beating a St. John’s team that just last year set a record for lowest conference wins – for this Irish squad – was not a given.

In fact, coach Mike Brey said his team understood its situation prior to tip-off.

“[Our players] are not shocked we had to do this to win,” Brey said. “I told them to expect to do this to win. We never expected we were going to beat St. John’s by 10 or 12. I don’t expect that at any Big East game.”

But the Irish should have expected that against the Red Storm.

While Notre Dame’s being favored should not demand a sound victory alone, the Irish had every opportunity to put a team away that shot 31 percent from the field in the second half and made 10 of its 22 foul shots, including 5-of-12 during the final 8:38 of the game.

In that same stretch, Notre Dame scored only 12 points and made no two-point field goals the remainder of the game.

The shot selection is not as big of a deal because most of the shots the Irish took Saturday, as Brey said, were good ones. Also, St. John’s is playing every game like a playoff due to its ban on postseason participation.

“They really have nothing to lose. They’re just playing,” Brey said. “This is an NCAA tournament game to them. They’re playing them like there’s 12 or 13 left.”

But the fact that the Red Storm would have stolen this one in the Joyce Center had it not been for poor foul shooting and Chris Thomas’ 3-point shot speaks volumes towards Notre Dame’s status as a basketball team.

“Part of playing in this league is learning how to win, especially down the stretch,” Quinn said. “I think in our four games for the most part we’ve done a pretty good job down the stretch … it seems like every Big East game is going to come down to those last three or four minutes.”

The Irish are 3-1 in the Big East, a game better than they were after four conference games last season. But as a tough schedule looms ahead, Notre Dame has not shown convincing evidence that it is significantly better than anybody.

While the Irish swarmed Syracuse Monday, the Orange eventually separated themselves as the better, more composed team with a 14-0 second half run. Notre Dame could not do that to St. John’s Saturday.

“Last year we lost a lot of close games, and this year we’re winning them,” Falls said. “That makes a difference come tournament time.”

It sure does, and playing in the Big East undoubtedly prepares teams for the stiff competition they will see in the postseason. In such a difficult conference, Brey shows strength and leadership as a coach by appreciating a win for what it is.

“I want [our players] to celebrate,” he said. “I don’t want them to say, ‘Oh man, we should have won by [so many points]… B.S. We will enjoy it, and then we will get back to work tomorrow, because a league win is a league win. And we’ll take it, man.”

But if Notre Dame cannot hang with teams like Syracuse for the full 40 minutes, the Irish must take care of teams like St. John’s consistently.

Otherwise, they should not expect any referees’ calls. Even at home.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the observer. Contact Pat Leonard at pleonard@nd.edu