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No shame in losing a close game to a highly ranked conference opponent

Pat Leonard | Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The atmosphere at Monday night’s game indicated how big a match-up with Syracuse was.Fans spent an unusual amount of time on their feet, even rising to give guard Russell Carter a standing ovation for his contributions off the bench in the first half. Whenever the Irish made a run or took the lead, the Joyce Center crowd noise was deafening.But on each occasion when Notre Dame had the momentum and crowd behind it, Syracuse answered. The Irish could not put the Orange away. Though Syracuse came into the game ranked No. 6 in the nation, Notre Dame players recognized Monday’s 70-61 loss was a missed opportunity.Chris Quinn took the loss particularly hard.”It’s disappointing for our team,” he said. “It’s important, especially on your home court, to get wins in the Big East. A team like Syracuse, they’re a great opponent, a top ten team, and with the chance that we had today it’s pretty disappointing.”Notre Dame was up eight points with 14 minutes left, and relinquishing such a sizeable lead at home cannot please players or coaches. But in the grand scheme of things, Monday’s loss may not be as hard a blow as some people may think.Winning Monday would have made Notre Dame 3-0 in the Big East and given it a quality win over a top ten team. Winning would have made a statement before a national television audience. But even after the loss, the Irish are a solid 2-1 in conference play.In an immediate sense, this loss to Syracuse is difficult to swallow, since Notre Dame did not hold a lead and committed unforced errors to allow its opponent back into the game. But this team also would much rather lose to a top ten team at this point in the season than lay an egg against a lower-caliber conference opponent like Seton Hall.In contrast to the barrage of turnovers against the Syracuse zone, the Irish showed late-game poise previously in wins against the Pirates on Jan. 5 and against Villanova three days later. Notre Dame was not favored to beat Syracuse, and for a good part of Monday’s game the Orange appeared rattled andout of rhythm.In the first half, the Syracuse offense often looked as stalled and unorganized as Notre Dame’s had in the early season. Syracuse point guard Gerry McNamara, who averaged 11 shots per game entering Monday’s contest, took 12 shots in the first half alone, and Notre Dame even succeeded in getting star forward HakimWarrick into foul trouble in the second half.The Irish played more physical than normal, and their defense was above average for three-quarters of the game. The Orange, though, were simply the better team.”The best team in the league is 3-0,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “They’re the best team in the league right now.”Syracuse is currently the class of the Big East. Though Notre Dame outplayed the Orange at various points throughout the game Monday, McNamara, Josh Pace and Billy Edelin created turnovers late in the second half and outplayed the Irish backcourt.But the Irish will have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves. The conference slate has dates with St. John’s, West Virginia, Georgetown and Villanova lined up before a murderer’s row of Connecticut, Syracuse, Boston College and Pitt approaches.In addition, ten of their 14 remaining regular season games will appear on national television.The immediate effects of allowing a 14-0 Syracuse run to spoil hopes of an upset may be unavoidable, and at some point this season Notre Dame will need to win at least a few of these types of games.”We didn’t execute our game plan like we wanted to,” Chris Thomas said. “Up six with the ball, that’s a pretty promising situation, but I think we had a turnover the next couple of plays and that really deflates you.”In the end, though, this is one loss Notre Dame can afford.

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