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Men’s Basketball: Silent Knights

Chris Hine | Thursday, February 26, 2009

On Saturday, Notre Dame was able to beat Providence without much help from junior point guard Tory Jackson. But on Wednesday, after Notre Dame trailed by eight at halftime to lowly Rutgers and forward Luke Harangody hit just 2-of-12 first half shots, Jackson knew his team needed him.

He answered the challenge and scored 18 points to propel Notre Dame to a 70-65 win over the Scarlet Knights in the Joyce Center.

“When we played Providence, it was a reality check for me …” said Jackson, who had just two points in 12 minutes against the Friars. “I can’t play tight. My team needs me.”

Jackson, however, had some assistance in inspiring the Irish in the second half.

Senior forward Ryan Ayers has sparked Notre Dame with a key offensive play many times in his career at Notre Dame, but against Rutgers, it was a defensive play from Ayers that ignited his team.

With 18:04 left in the second half, 6-foot-11 Scarlet Knights junior Hamady Ndiaye went up for a shot in the lane. Waiting there was the 6-foot-8 Ayers, who put up his long right arm and plucked the shot out of the air, grabbed the ball and began a Notre Dame fast break that ended with a Luke Harangody 3-point play, assisted by Jackson. The sequence brought Notre Dame within one point of Rutgers.

“That put us in another gear, picked us up and got us pumped up a little bit,” Jackson said. “He had a few blocks today like Dikembe [Mutombo]. He was Dikembe Ayers.”

Ayers’ block helped awaken the languid Irish, who wasted little time after that reclaiming the lead, with help from Jackson.

It was a Jackson jumper that gave Notre Dame a 38-37 lead with 17:16 left in the first half, Notre Dame’s first lead since the score was 4-2. And it was Jackson who hit a key 3-pointer and assisted other pivotal baskets that helped Notre Dame build a 65-53 lead with 4:56 left in the game.

“Coach [Mike Brey] has been on me about that, just going out and playing,” Jackson said. “He wants me to score too and my thing is, I try not to put too much pressure on myself offensively and try to defend well, but today, what helped me out was, I didn’t focus on any of that, I just went out and played my game.”

But Notre Dame nearly relinquished that lead.

Rutgers guard Mike Rosario, who finished with 20 points, hit a 3-pointer to spark a 9-0 Rutgers run that cut Notre Dame’s lead to 65-62 with 2:13 to play. But Harangody and Jackson hit their free throws late to prevent the comeback.

Senior guard Kyle McAlarney finished with 13 points. Harangody bounced back in the second half to end the game with 20 points and 15 rebounds on 7-for-25 shooting.

“My shot felt as good as it always is and every time it went up it felt like it was going in,” Harangody said. “I just couldn’t catch a break tonight.”

Few games are easy in the Big East and Rutgers let Notre Dame know early that – even though it only has one win in conference play – the Irish wouldn’t be able to take the night off. In the first half, the Scarlet Knights were able to get open shots against Notre Dame’s defense, which, in the first half, didn’t look like the defense that held Louisville and South Florida to 57 points two weeks ago. Rutgers opened a 21-10 lead.

Sophomore forward Tyrone Nash helped to temporarily chip away at the lead by scoring four points off the bench, but Rutgers was able to prevent any Notre Dame run from forming, thanks to a 15-for-28 (54 percent) performance from the field in the half. Meanwhile, Notre Dame didn’t help itself offensively with seven turnovers, but came out with a renewed focus in the second half to capture the win. Notre Dame will face No. 2 Connecticut Saturday on the road.

“We’re playing for something,” Brey said. “There’s no question about it and it’s a fine line of ‘Hey fellas, this is a really big game’ and not getting too tight and tying yourself in knots. At times we did that in the first half.”

Notes:

uIn his postgame press conference, Brey said he was a little more animated on the sideline than usual in order to try to motivate the crowd.

“I was worried about this game … but once the crowd got going, man, that helped us defensively,” Brey said. “Our crowd is loud when we’re in half-court defense, especially down there in front of the students. That made all the difference in the world. I was just trying to get them going and get them up and get them rolling.”

uSenior forward Zach Hillesland exited the game because of an injury early in the second half and didn’t return. Brey said Hillesland was healthy enough to come back in the game, but did not want to mess with the rotation that was playing well at the time.