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Irish defeat Hoop Group in exhibition opener

Andrew Soukup | Thursday, November 6, 2003

Torrian Jones missed a double-double by two rebounds. Torin Francis started establishing himself as an offensive force with a double-double of his own. Russell Carter is averaging six points a minute. Tom Timmermans banged down low for 31 minutes. Chris Quinn fired 3-pointers like he was trying to replace Matt Carroll.

And in the midst of a new-look Irish basketball team that still showed no hesitation in launching 3-pointers, Chris Thomas remained the spectacular player that made him consider leaving early for the NBA. His on-court management helped Notre Dame beat Hoop Group 88-76 in the first regular exhibition game of the young basketball season.

“There were a lot of guys in new roles for the first time here,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “It was interesting to watch.”

Aided by the backcourt combination of Thomas and Quinn, the Irish pushed the tempo of the game to a fast pace in the first half – something Brey-coached Notre Dame teams haven’t traditionally done. Thomas finished with 25 points and nine assists, while Quinn recorded 12 points – all off 3-pointers

But the goal of the night, at least early on, was to establish Francis, expected to be Notre Dame’s primary low-post threat in the season, in the paint to free up the rest of the Irish offense. The sophomore finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds.

“I’m not a freshman anymore. Some of those mistakes I got away with last year I can’t get away with this year,” he said. “That’s my mentality. I’m older, I’m stronger, I’m more aggressive. But now I’m more of a leader, so I have to show that.”

While the sophomore struggled some on defense against the Hoop Group’s agile big men, he scored Notre Dame’s first four points of the game. Then, with the defense collapsing on him when he got the ball, Francis fired pinpoint passes to wide-open shooters on the perimeter.

“That’s what we’re trying to do all season,” Thomas said. “We have to establish him early in the game. Our inside-outside combo is pretty good right now.”

Then there was Jones, who played a career-high 38 minutes and scored 20 points with eight rebounds. He slashed to the basket all night long, using his body to shield the ball from defenders and flip it acrobatically to the hoop.

“I don’t know how he gets through bodies sometimes to get to the backboard,” Brey said. “I thought he was really solid for us tonight. And he can guard anybody.”

But Notre Dame’s defense struggled at times, especially with the absence of Jordan Cornette, who sat out Wednesday’s exhibition with a bruised knee. That left Francis and Timmermans to try to defend Hoop Group’s athletic big players.

Notre Dame’s first game since they returned from Barbados was anything but a pushover. The Irish actually trailed for four minutes in the first half as they struggled to get their offense moving and never could put away Hoop Group.

Or they couldn’t until freshman Russell Carter, whose defensive struggles in Barbados left Brey wondering if Carter could contribute to Notre Dame, hit two 3-pointers in the last minute of the first half to give the Irish a 45-35 lead at the break. Carter, who only returned for a few more seconds in the second half, left Wednesday’s exhibition averaging six points a minute.

Even then, Notre Dame couldn’t quite pull away. Although the Irish stretched the lead to as large as 16 points early in the second half, a handful of Hoop Group came back to draw the score to within six and seven points numerous times late in the half.

But whenever Hoop Group drew close, Quinn buried a clutch 3-pointer. His last bucket of the game came with 2:59 left in the contest and gave Notre Dame a 10-point lead that wouldn’t dip under double-digits the rest of the game.

“This is one of the best exhibition teams we played,” Brey said. “We contracted with them because I knew they would put together some guys who could play the game.

“They put a lot of pressure on us, especially game pressure in the second half. And that was pretty good for us.”