Men’s Basketball: Shooting woes, tough schedule doom Irish
Chris Hine | Friday, May 15, 2009
They began with a top 10 preseason ranking and had four returning starters from a team that made the NCAA Tournament a year ago, including the reigning Big East player of the year in Luke Harangody. It was a recipe for success.
But there was one ingredient in Notre Dame’s season that spoiled the finished product – a tough and grueling schedule.
Notre Dame faced the No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament a total of six times, with five of those games coming in conference, and suffered through a seven-game losing streak that played a large part Notre Dame’s relegation to the NIT.
The Irish finished the year with a 21-15 record (8-10 Big East) and went 1-5 in this matchups against those No. 1 seeds.
The writing on the wall for this season may have come before Notre Dame began conference play, in a contest against Ohio State at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Harangody played despite fighting the effects of pneumonia he contracted during Notre Dame’s time in Maui playing in the Maui Invitational.
He still scored 25 points and grabbed 16 rebounds. Harangody wasn’t the problem.
The problem was that Notre Dame couldn’t make up for the off night senior guard Kyle McAlarney had. Ohio State closely guarded McAlarney and held him to just six points on 3-for-11 shooting. Junior guard Tory Jackson was second in scoring for Notre Dame with 13 points as the Irish struggled and fell 67-62 to the Buckeyes. Ohio State had designed the blueprint on how to beat Notre Dame – let Harangody get his points, but contain McAlarney. The rest of the Irish weren’t score-first players the way Harangody and McAlarney were, and Notre Dame’s defense was inconsistent, and made it hard for the Irish to stay in close games.
Notre Dame’s Big East opponents certainly took notes from Ohio State’s victory.
Teams took away McAlarney at times during Notre Dame’s seven-game losing streak, while his teammates struggled to pick up the slack.
The streak began with a Jan. 12 overtime loss to Louisville, then continued with a 93-74 loss to Syracuse on Jan. 17. Still, optimism abounded around the Irish squad. The following weekend ESPN’s College Gameday came to campus, as did top-tier opponents in Marquette and Connecticut. The Huskies came to town on Saturday amidst all the hype. Notre Dame may have been struggling, but those struggles were away from the Joyce Center, where the Irish had won 45 straight games.
However, that ended on Jan. 24, when Connecticut beat Notre Dame 69-61. McAlarney had some open looks, but scored just nine points on 3-of-15 shooting. Senior Ryan Ayers had his own troubles, shooting just 1-of-10 for the night.
Then Marquette defeated Notre Dame two days later, and again Notre Dame’s shooters couldn’t find their touch. The Golden Eagles hounded McAlarney and limited him to nine points. Ayers shot 0-for-7 for the night.
While offensive problems doomed the Irish in the losses to Marquette and Connecticut, defensive deficiencies contributed to Notre Dame’s next two losses. The Irish gave up 93 points each to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Their seventh loss of the streak, however, was just an overall disaster on both ends of the floor. The Irish reached their low point in Los Angeles at the hands of UCLA. The Bruins delivered an 89-63 thumping of Notre Dame, aired nationwide on CBS.
“Time for us to go back to step one,” Harangody said following the defeat. “There’s not much you could say. This was embarrassing today, definitely a low point in my career at Notre Dame.”
The streak ended in perhaps Notre Dame’s weirdest game of the season. Against eventual Big East champion Louisville on Feb. 12 at the Joyce Center, Notre Dame played outside of itself and beat the Cardinals 90-57.
Everything went right for the Irish that night, but soon, Notre Dame came back down to earth, ending the Big East season with two straight losses to Connecticut and Villanova – playing two straight Final Four teams can do that to you.
West Virginia knocked the Irish out of the Big East tournament and days later, the Irish learned they would play in the NIT.
They advanced to the semifinals before losing to Penn State.
Their final season may not have gone as they planned, but Notre Dame’s four graduating seniors – McAlarney, Zach Hillesland, Ayers and Luke Zeller – certainly accomplished a lot during their four-year careers
The four struggled through a tough freshman season that mirrored their final season in some ways. They suffered defeat after agonizing defeat and missed the NCAA Tournament. But those two years bookended two solid years where the Irish had one of the most potent offenses in the country.
And each had their own memorable moments.
McAlarney hit nine 3-pointers his junior year against Syracuse, then hit 10 in a loss this year to North Carolina.
Hillesland posterized DePaul’s Mac Koshwal in a game in March of 2008.
Zeller’s left-handed dunk against Marquette, which his teammates named “The Baptism” sparked Notre Dame to a key win in 2008 against Marquette, while Ayers hit what Irish coach Mike Brey called one of the most important shots of the past four years when he was a sophomore against Villanova.
Ayers, a bench role player during his sophomore year, hit a key 3-pointer to tie the game late against the Wildcats, then hit two free throws to give Notre Dame the lead. The Irish won the game, advanced to 5-3 in the Big East on their way to advancing to the NCAA Tournament.
The four seniors had some moments on the court they’d like to forget, but the good memories they created should be enough to drown out the bad.