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Panthers claw past Irish

Andrew Soukup | Monday, February 9, 2004

Torin Francis had just hit a jumper, Notre Dame held a double-digit first-half lead on the fourth-ranked team, the Joyce Center was rocking and the Irish showed no signs of slowing down.

But then Francis left the game with back spasms, Pittsburgh’s defense shut down Notre Dame’s offense and the 13-point Irish lead gradually turned into a 10-point Panther one. And even though the Irish had an opportunity to win with a minute left in the game, they couldn’t pull out the victory in a 66-58 loss to No. 4 Pittsburgh Saturday night.

Thus, the opponent might have been different but the storyline stayed the same, as Notre Dame missed another golden chance to beat one of the Big East’s elite teams.

“We played our hearts out, and we gave it everything we had,” Notre Dame guard Torrian Jones said. “They were able to get it done, and we weren’t.”

The Irish (10-9, 4-5 in the Big East) are now under .500 in league play for the first time in the Mike Brey era and are 0-5 against ranked teams.

Notre Dame will face another ranked foe tonight in No. 5 Connecticut, the first time since 1962 that the Irish will play consecutive games against top-five teams at home.

The question of whether Francis will be healthy enough to play tonight remains unanswered. The sophomore forward left Saturday’s game early in the first half with back spasms and did not return. He said Saturday he would definitely be able to play, but Irish coach Mike Brey wasn’t so sure. Whether he would play was still a game-time decision on Sunday.

“It’s disappointing, because he was off to a pretty good start,” said Brey, who said signs of the back spasms began appearing in practice last week. “I hope we can get him back, but we better be prepared to play without him.”

Francis was instrumental in helping Notre Dame build a 15-2 lead by scoring two quick baskets, but the Irish were also aided by three 3-pointers from guard Chris Thomas.

But when Francis left the game Saturday with just under 10 minutes remaining in the first half, the Panthers had already clawed back to 22-15.

The Irish entered halftime with a 32-26 lead, but sputtered early in the second half. After Jones scored on a driving layup 57 seconds into the half, the Irish managed just seven points in the next 11:40. In that span, Pittsburgh turned a six-point halftime deficit into a 10-point lead with 7:42 to play.

Still, Notre Dame clawed back. Four times, the Irish cut the lead to five points or fewer. And when Jones banked in a jumper with 58 seconds remaining, Notre Dame trailed 59-56.

But that was as close as the Irish would get. The Panthers – the Big East’s fourth-worst free-throw shooting team – made 7-of-9 free throws in the game’s final minute to clinch the win.

“We didn’t have a rhythm offensively,” Brey said. “A lot of it was Pittsburgh, but a lot of it was having a different guy in the post for us.”

Thomas, who entered Saturday’s game shooting just 21.7 percent from the floor and averaging 9.6 points a game over the last three Irish contests, finished with 23 points on 9-of-17 shooting, including making five of his 10 3-point attempts.

But aside from Jones, the only other Notre Dame player to finish in double-digits with 12 points, Notre Dame struggled to find its offensive rhythm. Chris Quinn only tallied three points – on free throws – despite playing 36 minutes, and the rest of the Irish didn’t fare much better.

However, the Irish were quick to praise the Panther’s stifling defense. After letting the Irish shoot 46.4 percent in the first half, Notre Dame was held to 29.6 percent from the field in the second. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh finished the game shooting 49 percent from the floor.

“It’s frustrating, but it gives us hope to see what we can do,” Jones said. “Pitt was a team that was known for their defense, and coming out with our offensive explosion that we have tonight, that shows the potential of the team and what we’re capable of doing. …

“There were a couple slip-ups, and another team might not take advantage of them the way they did, but every time we made a mistake, they took advantage of it. That’s why they’re the best team in the Big East right now.”

The Irish have little time to rest, as they host Connecticut tonight. Notre Dame will go from playing against Pittsburgh’s grinding, physical style of play to trying to defend the Huskies’ up-tempo style.

“We have no time to hang our heads,” Quinn said. “We’ve got one of the top teams in the nation coming here on Monday, and if we sit around and feel sorry for ourselves, they’re gonna blow us out.”