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Men’s Basketball commentary

Chris Hine | Friday, March 9, 2007

NEW YORK – Teams that can’t hit their free throws don’t deserve to win games, and never was that more apparent than Thursday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.

Notre Dame did not shoot the ball as well against Syracuse as it has in recent games, but luckily for the Irish, their average afternoon shooting was not as bad as Syracuse’s horrid free throw shooting.

The Irish shot 27-of-67 from the field (40 percent), with 34 of those attempts coming from 3-point range. After starting out slow in the first half, shooting 36 percent, the Irish picked up the slack in the second half and hit timely 3-pointers to keep the Orange from overtaking the lead.

The Irish converted 7-of-15 attempts from the beyond the arc in the second half – a significant improvement from 6-of-19 in the first half.

But Notre Dame’s shooting in the second half would not have been enough for the team to prevail had Syracuse not shot 55 percent (on 29 attempts) from the free-throw line for the game.

During an eight-minute stretch in the second half, beginning with 11 minutes remaining, Syracuse had four chances to cut into the Irish lead at the foul line. The first time, Orange forward Terrance Roberts missed both attempts. Irish forward Zach Hillesland came down and hit a jumper to make the score 61-53 Irish.

Roberts, who finished 0-of-6 from the charity stripe, returned to the line at 7:24 with the score 65-59 Notre Dame and missed the front end of a 1-and-1. Syracuse had missed an opportunity to put pressure on the Irish as Notre Dame failed to score on its next possession.

At 6:07, Syracuse forward Paul Harris hit one of two free throws, but then Notre Dame responded as guard Russell Carter connected for one of his four 3-pointers, giving the Irish a 70-62 lead.

But the most important set of misses came with 3:05 remaining. With the Orange down seven, Harris missed a pair from the line. Notre Dame came right down the floor and forward Rob Kurz buried a three – inducing a big fist pump from Irish coach Mike Brey – from the corner to put the Irish up 10.

This five-point swing all but ended Syracuse’s hopes of a comeback and ensured Notre Dame a spot in the Big East semifinals.

Harris and Roberts killed the Irish on the boards, combining for a whopping 35 rebounds, but could not hit key free throws down the stretch. If they had connected from the line during this stretch, the outcome may have been different.

Notre Dame, despite its first half struggles, took advantage of Syracuse’s missed opportunities and hit key shots when it mattered. The Irish were 22-of-26 from the line and kept an Orange comeback at bay during the final minutes.

Still, Notre Dame had its problems.

The Irish relied too much on the three. Luke Harangody did finish with 20 points, but half of Notre Dame’s field goal attempts came from beyond the arc. All off guard Colin Falls’ 17 field goal attempts were threes. It may not be a problem now, but the day will come in the near future when those shots will not fall.

The Irish can take steps to correct this problem. Carter has shown the ability to get to the hole and draw contact, even against Syracuse. If he decides to drive more often, Carter will not only gain high percentage shots but also get other teams’ post players in foul trouble.

Falls is among the nation’s best at using screens effectively to find an open shot. Opposing teams know Notre Dame is going to set double screens to get him open, but Falls usually manages to get open – with a few exceptions. Against Marquette Feb. 24, Falls had trouble shaking Dominic James. James was able to beat Falls to the screens and fight over the top of them, rendering him ineffective in these possessions.

Most of Falls’ points came from kick-outs off of rebounds or moments when James did not guard him. When the Irish run into another athletic team, such as Georgetown tonight with solid defenders like Marquette’s James, Falls will find it difficult to get open looks. Running Falls through some back door screens can keep an aggressive defender from blanketing Falls as James did.

Lastly, Notre Dame allowed 26 offensive rebounds and 27 second-chance points against the Orange. Notre Dame’s rebounding has been solid all season, but any dreams of a trip to San Antonio in a few weeks will die quickly if the Irish can’t improve upon their interior play.

With a little help from Syracuse, the Irish won their sixth contest in a row. If they hope to extend that streak, however, they still need to do some work, starting tonight against the Hoyas.

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

Contact Chris Hine at chine@nd.edu