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Basketball: Seniors lead Irish back to NCAA Tournament

Chris Hine | Friday, May 18, 2007

Russell Carter sat with his head down, reluctantly answering questions in the locker room after Notre Dame’s 74-64 loss to Winthrop in the first round of the NCAA Tournament March 16. The anger of what could have been resounded in Carter’s dejected voice.

“My season is over. My career is over. We’re done,” Carter said.

Colin Falls sat next to Carter, his head also down, and his own disappointment evident in his sullen gaze. Though the sting of defeat dug deep at that moment, the two all-Big East first team selections had a lot to be proud of during their final season in a Notre Dame uniform.

At the beginning of the year, not a lot of people expected much from the Irish.

They were picked to finish 11th in the preseason Big East polls – barely good enough to make the conference tournament, much less the NCAA Tournament. Even less was expected when Notre Dame’s starting point guard, Kyle McAlarney, was suspended at the advent of Big East play.

But the Irish, behind their two leading scorers, Falls (15.3 points per game) and Carter (17.1 points per game), refused to dwell on their shortcomings and earned an undefeated record at home, a fourth-place finish in conference play and Notre Dame’s first NCAA Tournament berth in four years.

In December, Notre Dame caught the attention of the college basketball world with a pair of victories over then No. 21/22 Maryland and an upset of then No. 4/5 Alabama at the Joyce Center, earning the Irish a top-25 ranking in both the media and coaches polls. But the celebration did not last long.

On Dec. 29, McAlarney was charged with possession of marijuana by South Bend police and suspended indefinitely from the team pending a formal decision by the University. Notre Dame now had to adjust to life without McAlarney. The University eventually suspended the sophomore Jan. 24 for the rest of the spring semester.

“I think our two seniors weren’t going to let [McAlarney’s suspension] derail them from having a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “So, they did a good job of keeping the group moving forward and not feeling sorry for itself.”

Brey said his team turned the corner soon after McAlarney’s arrest when the Irish knocked off Louisville 83-72 Jan. 3 in Notre Dame’s first Big East game of the season. The victory featured a 14-point, five-rebound, four-assist performance from freshman point guard Tory Jackson, who took over McAlarney’s starting spot.

“It was only the second game without (McAlarney) and Tory played so well and we beat a good team here,” Brey said. “I think that was a confidence builder for Tory, our guys, and for everybody involved to feel like, ‘You know what, we still got a great shot at doing the things we’ve dreamed about doing.'”

Jackson matured with each game during the season and became a potent offensive threat off the dribble. Jackson’s classmate, Luke Harangody, earned a spot in the starting lineup and became a force in the post. Harangody averaged 11.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game for the year.

Junior Rob Kurz recovered from an ankle injury that slowed him down in the second half of the season to lead the Irish in rebounds (8.0 per game) and average 12.6 points per game.

Sophomore Zach Hillesland, who Brey frequently referred to as the spark plug for his team, was the sixth man for the Irish. Hillesland’s main contributions on the floor came in his ability to do the things that do not necessarily show up in the box score – such as setting good screens, boxing out, or playing effective defense. Sophomore sharp shooter Ryan Ayers had a breakthrough game against Villanova. Ayers hit a clutch three and added a pair of go-ahead free throws late in the game in Notre Dame’s 66-63 win over the Wildcats Jan. 27.

Brey expects a lot next season from his returning players, but added they would not have improved this season if it were not for Falls and Carter.

“I’m very proud of how they helped me manage the team,” Brey said. “The seniors that I’ve had here for the most part have helped me manage the young guys and we had a lot of young guys we were relying on and then we had Tory thrust into it. Those two guys more than anything really helped me manage and lead the team.”

The Irish started Big East play 6-3 before losing two in a row on the road at South Florida and DePaul. Luckily, for the Irish, they had a week off to retool before facing Providence back at the Joyce Center. During that week, Brey went into “training camp mode” and practiced twice a day to refocus his team mentally.

“It re-cornered this team. This team was cornered when the year started – picked 11th, maybe an NIT team – the chip was on the shoulder,” Brey said. “By that time in the year, they had been told they were really good. They had been ranked, they had done some things. It almost put the chip back on the shoulder for everybody. So, from a mental standpoint, it came at a good time and they reacted well to it.”

Notre Dame went on to win its final five regular season games to finish fourth in the Big East with an 11-5 conference record and earn a bye in the first round of the Big East tournament.

In the quarterfinals of the tournament, Notre Dame defeated Syracuse for the second time in the season – ending Syracuse’s NCAA Tournament hopes in the process. The Irish then faced conference champion and Final Four participant Georgetown in the semifinals.

Despite opening up a 14-point first-half lead on the Hoyas, Notre Dame could not stave off a Georgetown comeback in the second half. Jeff Green gave the Hoyas an 84-82 lead with 14 seconds remaining. After Green missed the free throw on a possible three-point play, Carter grabbed the rebound and gave the ball to Jackson. Jackson drove down the floor and set up Carter for an open three. The shot missed with six seconds showing on the clock. Georgetown grabbed the rebound and the berth in the Big East finals.

“People say well you should drive the ball there,” Brey said. “But with Russell Carter’s percentages and how he was playing and how open a look, you live with that one or die with that one. If that happened ten more times, you take it.”

Shortly after the heartbreaking loss, the Irish learned they made the NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed in the St. Louis region. Notre Dame faced Winthrop in the first round in Spokane, Wash., in its first NCAA Tournament appearance in four years.

The Irish fell behind by as many as 20 in the second half against the Eagles, then came back to take a 63-62 lead with 2:20 remaining. But Notre Dame would only score one point the rest of the game. Winthrop took over in the closing minutes and sent Notre Dame home with a 74-64 loss.

Against the Eagles, the Irish could not find the shooting touch that made them so dangerous the entire season. From three-point land, the Irish shot just 4-of-22 and only 4-of-13 from the free throw line. Falls and Carter were not their usual selves either – combining to shoot 12-of-31 from the field.

But through a tumultuous season, the two seniors anchored Notre Dame. Even though their careers did not end quite the way they wanted, Falls and Carter led Notre Dame back to national prominence and the NCAA Tournament – hardly a reason to hang their heads.

Russell Carter sat with his head down, reluctantly answering questions in the locker room following Notre Dame’s 74-64 loss to Winthrop in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Mar. 16. The anger of what could have been resounded in Carter’s dejected voice.

“My season is over. My career is over. We’re done,” Carter said.

Colin Falls sat next to Carter also with his head down, his own disappointment evident in his sullen gaze. Though the sting of defeat dug deep at that moment, the pair of all-Big East first team selections had a lot to be proud of during their final season in a Notre Dame uniform.

At the beginning of the year, not a lot of people expected much from the Irish.

They were picked to finish 11th in the preseason Big East polls – barely good enough to make the conference tournament much less the NCAA Tournament. Even less was expected when Notre Dame’s starting point guard, Kyle McAlarney, was suspended at the advent of Big East play.

But the Irish, led by their two leading scorers, Falls (15.3 points per game) and Carter (17.1 points per game), refused to get down on themselves and earned an undefeated record at home, a fourth place finish in conference play and Notre Dame’s first NCAA Tournament berth in four years.

In December, Notre Dame caught the attention of the college basketball world with a pair of victories over then No. 21/22 Maryland and an upset of then No. 4/5 Alabama at the Joyce Center, earning the Irish a top 25 ranking in both the media and coaches polls. But the celebration did not last long.

On Dec. 29, McAlarney was charged with possession of marijuana by South Bend Police and suspended indefinitely from the team pending a formal decision by the University. Notre Dame now had to adjust to life without McAlarney. The Univeristy eventually suspended McAlarney Jan. 24 for the rest of the spring semester.

“I think our two seniors weren’t going to let [McAlarney’s suspension] derail them from having a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “So, they did a good job of keeping the group moving forward and not feeling sorry for itself.”

Brey said his team turned the corner soon after McAlarney’s suspension when the Irish knocked off Louisville 83-72 Jan. 3 in Notre Dame’s first Big East game of the season. The victory featured a 14-point, five-rebound; four-assist performance from freshman point guard Tory Jackson, who took over McAlarney’s starting spot.

“It was only the second game without (McAlarney) and Tory played so well and we beat a good team here,” Brey said. “I think that was a confidence builder for Tory, our guys, and for everybody involved to feel like, ‘You know what, we still got a great shot at doing the things we’ve dreamed about doing.'”

Jackson matured with each game during the season and developed into a potent offensive threat off the dribble. Jackson’s classmate, Luke Harangody, earned a spot in the starting lineup and became a force in the post. Harangody averaged 11.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game for the year.

Junior Rob Kurz recovered from an ankle injury that slowed him down in the second half of the season to lead the Irish in rebounds (8.0 per game) and average 12.6 points per game.

Sophomore Zach Hillesland, who Brey frequently referred to as the spark plug for his team, was the sixth man for the Irish. Hillesland’s main contributions on the floor came in his ability to do the things that do not necessarily show up in the box score – such as setting good screens, boxing out, or playing effective defense. Sophomore sharp shooter Ryan Ayers had a breakthrough game against Villanova. Ayers hit a clutch three and added a pair of go-ahead free throws late in the game in Notre Dame’s 66-63 win over the Wildcats Jan. 27.

Brey expects a lot next season from his returning players, but added they would not have improved this season if it were not for Falls and Carter.

“I’m very proud of how they helped me manage the team,” Brey said. “The seniors that I’ve had here for the most part have helped me manage the young guys and we had a lot of young guys we were relying on and then we had Tory thrust into it. Those two guys more than anything really helped me manage and lead the team.”

The Irish started Big East play 6-3 before losing two in a row on the road at South Florida and DePaul. Luckily, for the Irish, they had a week off to retool before facing Providence back at the Joyce center. During that week, Brey went into “training camp mode” and practiced twice a day to refocus his team mentally.

“It re-cornered this team. This team was cornered when the year started – picked 11th, maybe an NIT team – the chip was on the shoulder,” Brey said. “By that time in the year, they had been told they were really good. They had been ranked, they had done some things. It almost put the chip back on the shoulder for everybody. So, from a mental standpoint, it came at a good time and they reacted well to it.”

Notre Dame went on to win its final five regular season games to finish fourth in the Big East with an 11-5 conference record and earn a bye in the first round of the Big East tournament.

In the quarterfinals of the tournament, Notre Dame defeated Syracuse for the second time in the season – ending Syracuse’s NCAA Tournament hopes in the process. The Irish then faced conference champion, and Final Four participant Georgetown in the semifinals.

Despite opening up a 14-point first-half lead on the Hoyas, Notre Dame could not stave off a Georgetown comeback in the second half. Jeff Green gave the Hoyas an 84-82 lead with 14 seconds remaining. After Green missed the free throw on a possible three-point play, Carter grabbed the rebound and gave the ball to Jackson. Jackson drove down the floor and set up Carter for an open three. The shot missed with six seconds showing on the clock. Georgetown grabbed the rebound and the berth in the Big East finals.

“People say well you should drive the ball there,” Brey said. “But with Russell Carter’s percentages and how he was playing and how open a look, you live with that one or die with that one. If that happened ten more times, you take it.”

Shortly after the heartbreaking loss, the Irish learned they made the NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed in the St. Louis region. Notre Dame faced Winthrop in the first round in Spokane, Wash in their first NCAA Tournament appearance in four years.

The Irish fell behind by as many as 20 in the second half against the Eagles, then came back to take a 63-62 lead with 2:20 remaining; however, Notre Dame would only score one point the rest of the game. Winthrop took over in the closing minutes and sent Notre Dame home with a 74-64 loss.

Against the Eagles, the Irish could not find the shooting touch that made them so dangerous the entire season. From three-point land, the Irish shot just 4-of-22 and only 4-of-13 from the free throw line. Falls and Carter were not their usual selves as well – combining to shoot 12-of-31 from the field.

But through a tumultuous season, the play of Falls and Carter anchored Notre Dame. Even though their careers did not end quite the way they wanted, Falls and Carter led Notre Dame back to national prominence and the NCAA Tournament – hardly a reason to hang their heads.