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Men’s Basketball: Cutting the Bull

Chris Hine | Monday, February 16, 2009

If there’s one person opposing defenses have keyed on Notre Dame’s offense all season it’s Kyle McAlarney. Shut him down, you have a chance to win. Let him get free and risk getting burned by his quick, deadly accurate shot.

On Sunday, South Florida stuck with McAlarney for most of the second half, but on two possessions late in the game, the Bulls lost were a step slow, and McAlarney did them in to seal Notre Dame’s 67-57 win.

With just under three minutes remaining, McAlarney darted toward the corner, with South Florida guard Jesus Verdejo lagging behind, took a short pass from Zach Hillesland and drained a three to put Notre Dame (14-10, 5-7 Big East) up seven. McAlarney, who finished tied with Luke Harangody for a game-high 19 points, was determined to hit a big shot after missing the front end of a one-and-one on Notre Dame’s previous possession.

“I was ready to go off on myself and I was cursing a little bit and I got a little space and I just knew it was going in because I just had a different focus after I missed that free throw,” McAlarney said.

Then with 1:13 left, McAlarney came off a Harangody screen, caught the ball from guard Tory Jackson in front of Notre Dame’s bench, gave an up-fake to a hurried Verdejo and drained another three to give the Irish an eight point lead, ending any hope of a South Florida comeback.

“The other one, I just got him up in the air and just took it,” McAlarney said. “Great screen by ‘Gody, great delivery by Tory.”

But McAlarney’s clutch shots would not have been possible without another solid performance from Notre Dame’s defense, which held South Florida (8-16, 3-9 Big East) to 20-for-54 shooting (37 percent).

After struggling to keep many Big East opponents in check, Notre Dame’s man defense held its second straight opponent to just 57 points. Notre Dame had points to spare in its 90-57 blowout of the Louisville Thursday, but with 9:46 remaining against the Bulls, the score was tied at 51. Notre Dame didn’t allow a point for the next 8:34, allowing McAlarney to put the game away.

“We had to defend to win,” Brey said. “It was probably good to have to gut out a league game that was kind of a grind-it-out game. Hopefully that’s something we can build on because your offense wasn’t in a great rhythm but you had to keep getting stops and rebounds.”

The defense compensated for an Irish offense that lacked the consistency of Thursday’s showing. Notre Dame missed many open looks and shot 21-for-53 for the day (40 percent). McAlarney and Harangody were each 6-for-15 from the field. Ryan Ayers added 12 on 3-for-7 shooting. Tory Jackson, who finished with eight points, five assists and four rebounds, was 3-for 10.

Notre Dame got a boost in the first half from sophomore forward Tyrone Nash. Nash came off the bench and scored eight points in just over five minutes of play. Nash’s points were part of a 16-4 Notre Dame run that gave the Irish a 28-14 lead, Notre Dame’s biggest lead of the game.

“I’m just happy I was able to provide a spark plug off the bench,” Nash said. “It was kind of hard on a Sunday afternoon game to get it going, and I was just trying to jumpstart us to get this win.”

McAlarney bookended that run with two of his five 3-pointers. South Florida was able to cut the lead to nine at halftime and stay within striking distance early in the second half before mounting its best run of the game. Down, 51-43 South Florida went on an 8-0 run to tie the score. Bulls guard Dominique Jones, who finished with 14 points hit a jumper. Chris Howard followed that with one his three 3-pointers, and Verdejo, who led the Bulls with 18, took two trips to the free-throw line and hit three shots to tie the score. Notre Dame’s defense and McAlarney’s shooting took over from there.

Notre Dame will hit the road this week for two critical matchups against teams that are just ahead of the Irish in the Big East standings. On Wednesday, Notre Dame travels to West Virginia to take on the Mountaineers (17-8, 6-6), fresh off their 93-72 win over Villanova. On Saturday, Notre Dame heads to Providence to take on the Friars, (16-9, 8-5). This two-game swing represents a chance for Notre Dame to improve its lot in the standings, where it sits in 10th place.

“That’ll be a challenge; try to win a road game. I think to hold two teams in the 30s, field-goal percentage defense here at home is something build on,” Brey said. “Can we play that kind of position man-to-man on the road?”

Ayers added: “It’s our chance to make a move. Two road games against two really good team that have been playing well in the Big East.”