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Ayers leads squad to victory over Friars

Greg Arbogast | Monday, February 23, 2009

Facing the closest thing to a must-win game this season, Notre Dame found an identity that has seemed to elude them for much of the season.

Led by senior sharpshooters Kyle McAlarney and Ryan Ayers, the Irish rained three-pointers down on Providence to the tune of a 103-84 win Saturday. With the victory, Notre Dame ended a seven-game road losing streak and began their climb back towards an NCAA tournament berth.

The Irish relied on what they know best to begin that climb. On the first possession, Notre Dame passed the ball around until Ayers knocked down a three. One minute later, McAlarney pulled up for another three in transition. The two weren’t done.

Ayers and McAlarney put on a shooting clinic, scoring 32 of Notre Dame’s first 38 points as the Irish hit nine three-pointers collectively in the first 12 minutes of the game. The Friars, who are last in the Big East in scoring defense, played a zone defense. This allowed the Irish to get into the type of shooting rhythm that opponents have fiercely guarded against for much of the season.

The result was 11 Notre Dame three-pointers in the first half, allowing the Irish to go into halftime with a 12-point lead. For the game, Notre Dame finished with 13 treys. Ayers led the way, shooting 7-11 from behind the arc and finishing with 28 points. McAlarney tallied 25 points on the afternoon.

“When you get an open look, take it,” Ayers said. “Just go for it.”

Although it was Ayers and McAlarney finishing off most Irish possessions, many of their open looks were facilitated by an unlikely source. With starting point guard Tory Jackson dealing with foul trouble, backup Jonathon Peoples stepped in to play 28 minutes and ran Notre Dame’s offense to near perfection.

Peoples effectively broke Providence’s press and zone defense, registering nine assists and also contributing 14 points of his own. Both were career highs for the junior.

“I think it was probably my best game of my career,” Peoples said. “Just trying to make all the right plays. I like when teams press us. Them pressing us, I think it opened it up for me. People were knocking down shots.”

“Awesome,” Irish coach Mike Brey said of Peoples’ game. “You could feel it coming. He was flat-out fabulous.”

Peoples’ contributions were especially welcome given the struggles of Notre Dame’s top offensive player early on. Forward Luke Harangody, who entered the game averaging over 24 points per contest, scored only one point in the first half.

The reigning Big East Player of the Year was instrumental, though, in helping the Irish finish the game. Despite picking up his fourth foul with 13:30 remaining, Harangody scored 12 of his 18 points after that moment to help Notre Dame fend off any Providence comeback attempt.

With the win, the Irish move to 6-8 in Big East play one and a half games behind the Friars, who stand at 8-7 in conference. Notre Dame now holds the tie-breaker over Providence, should the two teams finish the season with identical conference marks.

This week the Irish return to the Joyce Center to take on Rutgers Wednesday before heading to Connecticut.