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Men’s Basketball: Postseason hopes take hit

Pat Leonard | Monday, February 27, 2006

Marquette completed a season series sweep of Notre Dame Saturday night with an 80-72 win at the Joyce Center behind 21 points from forward Steve Novak and 18 from freshman point guard Dominic James.

The Irish (13-12, 4-10 Big East) fell to No. 15 the in conference standings and must win their remaining two games to have a chance at qualifying for the Big East tournament March 8. The Golden Eagles (19-8, 9-5) improved their conference record and remain No. 5 in the conference.

Marquette won the first meeting between the two teams in Milwaukee, Wisc., 67-65, on a contested last-second shot by Novak Jan. 20. But on Saturday, the Golden Eagles played their game and were shooting foul shots at the end instead of sinking game-winners.

“I’d rather get blown out by 20 than [have] a team just take it from us,” freshman point guard Kyle McAlarney said after playing the most productive game of his young Notre Dame career (14 points, 6-of-12 shooting, eight assists, two turnovers).

Marquette permanently regained momentum with a 9-0 second half run behind three straight 3-pointers – one from Dan Fitzgerald (10 points), two from Novak. The Golden Eagles led 60-56 after Novak’s second three fell with 5:57 remaining, despite Notre Dame having built a 56-51 advantage coming out of a 49-49 tie at the 10:58 television timeout.

“We just had some possessions there – both defensively and offensively – after we were up five, [in which] we didn’t get the job done,” Irish point guard Chris Quinn said. “And to beat a team like Marquette, you’ve got to be good in those situations.”

Notre Dame never recovered, though it had a chance. Guard Russell Carter sank two free throws with 3:31 left to cut the Golden Eagles lead to 63-60, and Marquette guard Jerel McNeal missed a shot to give the Irish the ball and a chance to draw closer or tie.

But one shot clock violation and a turnover later, the Irish saw McNeal follow a Novak miss to send Marquette back up five and out of South Bend with a victory.

“It hurts,” Quinn said of the loss, “but a lot of them hurt.”

Notre Dame lost despite receiving a double-double from forward Torin Francis by halftime, the first time the senior has accomplished the feat before the half. Francis had 10 points and 12 rebounds at the break but finished with 16 points and 15 rebounds, the most boards by an Irish player in one game this season.

Notre Dame got away from the inside game down the stretch. Forward Rick Cornett also played only six minutes after making major contributions in a near-upset of No. 3/4 Connecticut Tuesday. And despite McAlarney’s performance, the guards struggled as a group, and Notre Dame’s offense paid for it.

Marquette held Quinn (12 points, two assists, four turnovers) to 3-of-12 shooting, and Irish sharpshooter Colin Falls – who averaged 14.6 points before Saturday – did not score until he made two inconsequential foul shots with 34.1 seconds remaining in the entire game.

“We subbed [Quinn and Falls] a little bit, tried to loosen them up, rotated them out, just tried anything to change the atmosphere,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “We need their legs back under them [for the next two games].

“I was very matter-of-fact with them in the locker room. Obviously we need some help [to qualify for the Big East tournament] now, but we’re staring at having to win a tiebreaker with Providence on Wednesday.”

Marquette opened a 14-9 lead with 15:16 remaining in the first half by pushing the tempo and keeping Notre Dame on their heels, as Brey said afterwards, on defense. Notre Dame then scored four straight to cut the lead to one, but the Golden Eagles pulled away and maintained a lead that fluctuated between two and seven points until McAlarney hit a three with 5:25 left in the half to cut the lead to 27-26.

Carter made a three to take a 29-27 Irish lead out of a Marquette timeout, and the Irish led with 3:21 remaining. But the Golden Eagles went on a 9-6 run to end the half, including a last-second lay up from Fitzgerald to send the Irish into halftime down 38-35.

“If we would have limited transition, I think we would have been in better shape at halftime,” Brey said. “We eventually adjusted to that, but it kind of punched you first.”

Notre Dame players now face the reality of possibly seeing no postseason action at all.

“You want to say, ‘Don’t worry about that. We just gotta get ready for Providence again,'” McAlarney said. “But it’s really hard not to focus on that because this is what we’ve been playing for, [what] we’ve been working for all season, and now it’s almost like our chances are going down.

“But we’ve just got to keep working, keep bouncing back, because after all the stuff we’ve been through, I think we can bounce back better than anybody.”