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Men’s Basketball: One down, four to go

Chris Hine | Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Just because it was St. Patrick’s Day Tuesday didn’t mean the good Irish karma on campus would make things easy for Notre Dame. After all, Notre Dame was founded by a French priest and has a French name, and it was Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) who came dressed for the occasion in its road-green uniforms.

Nevertheless, No. 2-seed Notre Dame (19-14) was able to gut out a 70-64 win over the No. 7-seed Blazers (22-12) in the opening round of the National Invitational Tournament in front of an official crowd of 2,039 at the Joyce Center.

Notre Dame advances to play New Mexico Thursday, also at home, at 7 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.

The crowd may have been small – no doubt many students were busy spending most of their day celebrating in anticipation of Notre Dame’s win – but Irish coach Mike Brey said those in attendance were a big help.

“Our sixth man tonight, our students were great, and the people that were there gave us energy,” Brey said. “I thought there was good energy, we had a home-court advantage tonight.”

Junior forward Luke Harangody, who led the Irish with 22 points and 10 rebounds, added: “We knew there wasn’t going to be a huge crowd out there … so we were expecting that, but as the game went on, it felt more and more like a Big East game.”

On the court, it resembled some of Notre Dame’s Big East games as well. In wins over Rutgers and South Florida, Notre Dame needed to clamp down defensively to compensate for a struggling offense. The story was the same against UAB.

Notre Dame was down 46-41 with 14:49 remaining and had hit just one of its first 10 shots to start the half.

“You lose, you’re done,” senior guard Kyle McAlarney said. “And that thought definitely crosses my mind right there, but our huddles were very strong and we did it on the defensive end.”

Following a timeout, Notre Dame toughened up defensively, holding UAB to just four points over the next 10:02. During that span, Notre Dame’s offense was hardly spectacular, but was serviceable enough to build a 60-50 lead, thanks in part to sophomore forward Tyrone Nash. Nash had six points and nine rebounds as he saw extended minutes in place of senior forward Zach Hillesland, who sat out most of the second half because of a knee injury.

“[Nash] continues to give us a big lift with the rebounding and the stuff around the basket,” Brey said.

The Blazers didn’t help their own cause either, shooting just 5-for-13 from the free-throw line, with most of those misses coming in the second half.

But they didn’t go quietly. Consecutive 3-pointers from guard Robert Vaden, who finished with a game-high 24 points, pulled the Blazers back within four. A 3-point play from Harangody made the score 63-57 with 1:20 left. And free throws from Harangody and junior guard Tory Jackson sealed the win in a game that could have been a let-down for the Irish after they failed to make the NCAA Tournament.

“I would’ve been shocked if we weren’t ready to go,” Brey said. “This group has always been ready to compete and get back on the horse and try it again.”

Notre Dame had led 39-30 late in the first half, but Vaden scored five points in the final seconds to pull UAB within four at the half.

Notre Dame was clicking offensively in the first half, which looked more like a pickup game, as opposed to the ugly second half.

It came complete with authoritative dunks, monster blocked shots by both teams, and an ESPN-worthy alley-oop from UAB forward Lawrence Kinnard to guard Paul Delaney III.

The Blazers stayed close for most of the half, and 16 points from Vaden helped. Notre Dame looked like it was ready to distance itself from UAB for good, thanks to an 8-0 run late in the half. Harangody found Nash inside for a layup and senior forward Ryan Ayers hit two 3-pointers to put Notre Dame ahead 39-30.

However, Vaden scored the last five points in the remaining minutes, capping off the half with a deep 3-pointer over Ayers and bringing his team back with four at 39-35.

“He looked like Kobe [Bryant] for a second,” Jackson said.