Men’s Basketball: Irish clinch No. 3 seed in conference tourney with win at USF
Fran Tolan | Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Luke Harangody strengthened his candidacy in the Big East player of the year race with 21 points and nine rebounds as No. 14/ 14 Notre Dame defeated South Florida 67-60 Saturday in the regular-season finale for both teams.
With the victory over the Bulls, the Irish clinched the No. 3 seed in the Big East tournament. And after notching wins against DePaul and St. John’s earlier in the week, the Irish (24-6, 14-4) head into the conference tournament on a three-game win streak.
“I think we’re playing like one of the best teams in the country right now,” said senior forward Rob Kurz, who scored 14 points against South Florida before fouling out. “We feel that we have a lot of momentum.”
But despite taking several big leads over the Bulls, South Florida kept coming back.
Notre Dame led by as many as 19 points in the second half but South Florida went on a 22-4 run to pull within one with just over five minutes remaining.
But the Irish were able to fend off the late South Florida rally to finish their season with 14 Big East victories in the expanded 18-game Big East schedule.
Juniors Kyle McAlarney and Ryan Ayers each drained two free throws in the final 23 seconds to put the Bulls away.
“We did a good job of not dwelling on our mistakes and just moving onto the next play,” Irish point guard Tory Jackson said. “We did a good job finishing them off at the end and knocking down free throws.”
At the end of the first half, Jackson squashed a South Florida run by knocking down a long 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded.
After Jackson missed a shot with 10 seconds remaining in the half, Bulls guard Jesus Verdejo converted a three-point play to cut Notre Dame’s lead to 33-27.
But Jackson took the inbound pass and streaked down the court in time to hit a running jumper from behind the arc.
“I got lucky,” Jackson said. “I made a mistake the play before and kinda forced a shot. But we did a good job just getting back. They scored but we didn’t put our heads down and my shot ended up falling.”
With Kurz in foul trouble for much of the game, Irish junior forward Zach Hillesland delivered 10 points and seven rebounds in 28 minutes of playing time.
Even though it might have been somewhat of a stretch, Jackson compared Hillesland to the forward’s favorite NBA player.
“I told [Hillesland] during the game he was attacking the rim like Kobe Bryant,” Jackson said. “He was just getting in there and going. He played smart and he played poised. He knew he had a mismatch and he took advantage of it.”
Freshman guard Dominique Jones led the way for South Florida with 20 points and seven rebounds.
Irish coach Mike Brey said he was glad his team secured a first-round bye for the Big East tournament. The Irish do not have to suit up for Wednesday’s opening round and will play in the quarterfinals Thursday against either Marquette or Seton Hall.
“This was a grueling week for us because it was three games in a week and we had to play hard to get them,” Brey said. “So to not play until Thursday, I think, helps us get our legs under us and get a little more refreshed.”