MEN’S BASKETBALL: Notre Dame lacks a sense of urgency as season comes to close
Pat Leonard | Monday, February 28, 2005
It is difficult to qualify a non-conference loss to a top-50 RPI team as a “bad loss.” Even on Sunday, Notre Dame eventually found an effective lineup and showed signs of life down the stretch.
While the loss to UCLA does not affect Notre Dame’s postseason status, the 10-point defeat does show that these Irish lack a sense of urgency in one of the most crucial segments of the season.
This week, Notre Dame knew they had only three opponents left on the regular season schedule: UCLA, Rutgers and Pittsburgh. They knew they were playing all three games on their home floor, where they were 12-2 and confident before Sunday. Though almost a week had passed, Notre Dame players and coaches also had the memory of an 88-74 Connecticut whooping fresh in their minds.
Apparently, that wasn’t enough to create a sense of urgency for Notre Dame Sunday.
“It was like punch after punch that they were throwing at us, and we didn’t have any response,” Thomas said. Both literally and figuratively, that comment could not be more accurate.
UCLA set the tone with physical play. Freshman guards Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar hand-checked Notre Dame’s guards and fought through screens on defense. Irish players inside and out had a difficult time moving with or without the ball.
When UCLA had the ball, Notre Dame did not reciprocate the contact or the attitude.
“It starts with me. It starts with the point,” Thomas said. “I just need to get into people more like I was earlier in the season.”
By the time Notre Dame did get physical in the final 10 minutes of the game, the Irish were called for fouls UCLA had gotten away with earlier. But this was only because the timing and circumstance of the game dictated calls to be so. If a team expects consistent referee calls, it must play at a consistent tempo and level.
Maybe Notre Dame has 100 percent confidence in beating Pittsburgh and Rutgers and earning the necessary 10 conference wins to strongly contend for a tournament birth. But quite simply, on Sunday, Notre Dame waited too long to establish itself.
For the second straight game, an underclassman point guard received player of the game honors against the Irish.
Six days after Connecticut sophomore Marcus Williams went for 17 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds against Notre Dame, Farmar scored 12 points and dished seven assists to cut up the Irish defense.
Coach Mike Brey attributed the Irish defensive struggles to his team’s inability to deal with on-the-ball screens and other movement the Bruins created. Notre Dame also failed to capitalize on UCLA’s inexperience.
At the 12:22 mark of the second half, Thomas crouched into a defensive stance and played hard man-to-man defense on Farmar for about four seconds. The result was a chest pass from Farmar to Irish guard Chris Quinn, who led the break the other way.
The problem was the Irish waited until the 12:22 mark of the second half to do this – or to mount any sort of resistance against a Pac-10 team who probably didn’t expect things to be this easy.
“We just should have set the tone earlier with those two and really with the whole team,” Thomas said.
But towards the end of the first half, an increasing UCLA lead just didn’t seem to be enough of a big deal.
Even with 14:10 remaining in the second half, Quinn was restarting an offensive possession with the ball at mid-court and seven seconds on the shot clock.
The coaches and players know they had almost a week off after the Connecticut loss. They know, despite constant reporters’ questions about being tired, that fatigue was not the main reason Sunday’s game turned out this way.
“I think UCLA made us look tired,” Brey said. “We chased and they really executed, and we were always kind of behind the eight-ball a little bit.”
But by the time Brey found the combination of Thomas, Quinn, Jordan Cornette, Russell Carter and Torin Francis deep into the second half, the Bruins’ lead was invincible.
“It’s not a horrible loss from [an NCAA tournament] standpoint,” Brey said. “It is [a horrible loss] as far as some of the things we need to do better … It would have been a very good win added to the resume.”
It would have.
Even though there’s a chance this loss may not drastically hurt this team’s chances at a tournament bid, coaches and players had every right to shake their heads and remain near-silent in the locker room following the game.
And that’s just what they did.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarly those of The Observer.
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Though most of the weekend didn’t go as planned, Notre Dame proved once again they still have the talent to go out with a bang.
The Irish opened the Palm Springs Classic with four losses on Friday and Saturday, but came back on Sunday to post a 5-2 upset win over No. 5/6 Tennessee. It was the third time this season that Notre Dame had knocked off a nationally ranked team, with wins over No. 21 South Florida and No. 19 Florida in the GRU Classic earlier in the year.
The Irish handed Tennessee their first loss of the tournament thanks in large part to a three-run homer from junior Meghan Ruthrauff in the third inning. Heather Booth pitched well against the Lady Vols to earn her third victory of the year.
The loss was only Tennessee’s second in the last 18 games, and improved the Irish record to 5-6. Tennessee is the highest-ranked team Notre Dame has defeated since April 23, 2002, when they took down No. 4 Nebraska 3-2 in Lincoln.
The win served as an important recovery for the Irish, who were looking to rebound from losing the first four games of the tournament, including a rough 2-1 loss to Arizona State (11-2) the previous night.
After starting off the tournament with three straight losses, coach Deanna Gumpf decided to change things up by switching her defensive lineup back to the 2004 starting team. Sara Schoonaert moved from second base to shortstop, Stephanie Brown moved from right to second base, where she was replaced by Nicole Wicks in her first start of the season and Mallorie Lenn moved behind the plate after playing the first nine games of the year as the designated hitter.
The switch sparked the Irish defense, allowing them to turn their second double play of the year and allowing only one error. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, their one error came at a most inopportune time. Leading 1-0 heading into the sixth, third basemen Liz Hartmann bobbled a grounder trying to throw out the Sun Devils’ leadoff hitter. Arizona State’s Valerie Sevilla, the next batter up, slammed a two-run homer than turned out to be the game-winner.
Despite allowing the deciding home run, senior Steffany Stenglein kept Notre Dame in the game, getting out of trouble when she needed to and giving up eight hits while striking out five. After allowing the sixth-inning home run, she struck out two batters and got a groundout to strand runners on second and third and keep the Irish within a run.
Notre Dame took an early lead in the contest when Megan Ciolli crushed a home run in the third inning. Ciolli, a Player of the Year candidate, is now hitting .355 with a home run, six RBIs, and four stolen bases for the season.
Notre Dame 1, No. 20 Pacific 9
Junior Heather Booth matched Pacific’s Alyce Jorgensen pitch-for-pitch as the game started out as a pitcher’s duel with no score through the first three innings. After Pacific got on the board with a fourth inning two-run homer, Notre Dame fought back with a run in the bottom of the inning when Meagan Ruthrauff doubled and came home on an RBI single by Schoonaert. But the Irish would get no closer. The shaky Notre Dame defense started a scoring rally by Pacific in the sixth, and the game quickly changed from a close contest to a rout as Pacific managed to score six times in the inning.
Notre Dame 1, No. 3/4 UCLA 3
The Irish started strong against the highest ranked team they have faced this season when Ruthrauff drove in Ciolli in the top of the first. The lead was short-lived, however, as the Bruins came right back in the bottom of the inning with two runs off starter Heather Booth. Both pitchers were dominant past the first inning, with only five batters reaching base for both teams combined during the remaining six innings. However, the damage was already done for Notre Dame.
Notre Dame 0, Loyola Marymount 7
The Irish matched Loyola-Marymount with seven hits, but could not get on the board thanks to a few missed opportunities and sloppy play. Stenglein went four innings, giving up three hits and five runs but only one earned. She didn’t get much help from her defense, which committed two key errors in the fourth inning to open the door for four unearned runs to score. The loss snapped the team’s four-game winning streak.