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Men’s Basketball: Irish hang on in final moments, down Texas 81-80

Fran Tolan | Wednesday, November 26, 2008

MAUI — Notre Dame did not trail for the entire second half Tuesday night but that doesn’t mean the Irish had an easy time with A.J. Abrams and Texas.

In a game that resembled a Wild West shootout, No. 8 Notre Dame prevailed over the No. 6/7 Longhorns 81-80 to advance to the final game of the EA Sports Maui Invitational.

But not before Abrams drained four second-half 3-pointers and saw his desperation 60-foot prayer graze the front of the rim and fall just short as the final buzzer sounded.

“We did a good job defending the [3-point] line the whole game,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “A couple that he hit were bombs.”

But Abrams’ biggest bomb just missed.

“I was wondering if the [good] karma reversed, quite frankly,” Brey said. “Because he got a pretty clean look and he was feeling good.”

Abrams got the shot off after Irish junior Luke Harangody, who led Notre Dame with 29 points and 13 rebounds, missed two free throws with 3.5 seconds left. Harangody’s foul shooting was part of a second-half trend for the Irish, who hit just 6-of-13 freebies during the period.

The free throw misses were some of the only mistakes Notre Dame made all day. The Irish committed just six turnovers against a physical Texas team.

“We should be a single-digit turnover team no matter who we play,” Brey said. “I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to do that against Texas. That’s really taking care of the ball because they come after you.”

Irish guards Kyle McAlarney and Tory Jackson, who scored 19 and 16 points, respectively, high-fived over Brey in the postgame press conference after they heard they had limited Notre Dame’s turnovers to single digits.

With just over 12 minutes remaining in the first half, the Irish held a 19-13 lead. But Texas went on a 14-4 run over the next five minutes of play to take a 27-23 advantage.

The Irish fought back, though, to take a 43-40 edge into the locker room at halftime. With 2:34 left in the period, senior forward Luke Zeller drained a 3-pointer to give Notre Dame a 40-35 lead. After Texas cut the deficit to one on a pair of free throws, Harangody answered with a jumper and a three-point lead the Irish would not surrender in the half.

Texas cut the Irish lead to two or fewer six times in the second half but Notre Dame responded each time with a bucket of its own.

“That’s maturity and experience. Young teams panic, young teams panic in a situation like that,” Brey said. “You can’t inject an experience into a team because when these guys were young they got smacked a little bit when runs came like that … That’s being old and poised.”

When Texas cut the Irish lead to 63-60 with under eight minutes to play, Harangody unleashed a shot similar to Abrams’ last-second heave – except the Notre Dame junior’s shot went in. With the shot clock expiring, Harangody collected a loose ball just in front of halfcourt and banked it off the backboard and in. Harangody pumped his fist emphatically after converting what Brey called a “HORSE shot.”

Brey and his players said Texas’ physical play provided the Irish with a good template for their Big East schedule. The Longhorns outrebounded the Irish 48-37 but Notre Dame came up with several key rebounds in the game’s waning minutes.

“That was definitely the toughest challenge I’ve had this whole season,” Harangody said. “They have a great front line with [forwards Connor] Atchley and [Damion] James.”

Brey said the win over Texas will benefit the Irish during the selection process for the NCAA Tournament at the end of the season.

“I’m trying to figure out how to get a bid from the Big East right now with the schedule we play,” he said. “Certainly, this was a great resume win and we have the opportunity for another one so anything we can stack up.”

The Irish will play No. 1 North Carolina tomorrow in the tournament final and McAlarney said the Irish are ready for the challenge.

“I think we’re just really excited to play for a championship in the best preseason tournament in the country,” the senior co-captain said. “This is what we came here to do and we got two wins under our belt … We’re just excited, we’re playing for the championship tomorrow.”