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Men’s Basketball Commentary: Hillesland the key for deep Tourney run

Chris Hine | Friday, March 21, 2008

DENVER — It’s a shame CBS cut away from Notre Dame’s 68-50 win over George Mason because Irish fans missed an all-around poetic performance from junior forward Zach Hillesland.

Hillesland played one of, if not his best game of the season Thursday, compiling 11 rebounds, six points, five assists and three steals, but as usual with Hillesland, his impact on the game extended far beyond his stats.

He helped hold George Mason guard Folarin Campbell to 1-for-12 shooting and facilitated Notre Dame’s transition game, especially in an early first run in which Notre Dame opened up a 23-7 lead.

If there was one game that encapsulated everything Hillesland brings to the table for Notre Dame, it was Thursday night. He was driving, dishing, and defending better than he has in any game this season.

His ability to penetrate on the offensive end caused George Mason’s defense to collapse inside, opening up the outside for senior forward Rob Kurz, junior forward Ryan Ayers, and junior guard Kyle McAlarney. Even if he didn’t get an assist, his penetration and kick-outs allowed the Irish to swing the ball around to the open shooters.

Not only did Hillesland’s play lead Notre Dame to victory on Thursday, it has implications for Notre Dame’s chances in the rest of the NCAA Tournament. The rest of the way, Notre Dame is going to need a game breaker if it has any chance of making it to the Sweet 16, or, God forbid, possibly beat North Carolina and advance to the Elite 8.

On Saturday, the Irish face a tremendous defensive team in Washington State. The Cougars allowed just 11 points in the second half to Winthrop. That’s right – 11. But even Washington State will have trouble with Notre Dame if Hillesland plays the way he did Thursday. He can take attention away from Harangody and McAlarney and free them up for open shots. Hillesland presents matchup problems for anyone and if the Irish beat Washington State, expect Hillesland to play a large part.

As for North Carolina, Tar Heels forward Tyler Hansbrough and Irish forward Luke Harangody will get all the attention, and North Carolina but even if Harangody gets his usual 20 points and 10 rebounds, Hillesland still needs to step up to free McAlarney and Ayers from North Carolina’s quick guards. Also, he could provide an intriguing matchup for Hansbrough. The two are about the same size, and Hillesland possesses the quickness to keep up with Hansbrough in the paint. Of course, all this is assuming the Irish knock off Washington State Saturday. With Hillesland’s help, this is more than possible.

As Hillesland goes in the NCAA Tournament, so goes Notre Dame and if he’s on, don’t bet against Notre Dame.