Irish crack AP top 25
Brian Hartnett | Monday, December 8, 2014
No. 25 Notre Dame will play its first game as a ranked team this season when the Irish meet Mount St. Mary’s tonight at Purcell Pavilion.
Notre Dame (8-1) grabbed the last spot in Monday’s AP Poll after winning both of its games last week, a 79-78 overtime victory over then-No. 19 Michigan State on Wednesday and a 75-57 win against Fairleigh Dickinson on Saturday. The Irish sit one spot out of the USA Today Coaches Poll, having the most votes of any team under the “others receiving votes” category.Notre Dame will enter the game against the Mountaineers (2-4) coming off a hard-fought victory against the Knights on a weekend when several big-conference programs lost in upsets. The Irish shot 50 percent from the field against Fairleigh Dickinson, but they hit only 23.5 percent of attempts from 3-point range.
With 3-point shooting stagnant, Irish coach Mike Brey said Notre Dame turned to its defense, which held Fairleigh Dickinson to 37.7 percent shooting from the field.
“I think defense was the answer for us,” Brey said in his postgame press conference Saturday. “We weren’t in the best of offensive rhythms.
“The area where we have grown showed up [Saturday] — offense isn’t going great, and we’re not making shots, but we are able to guard. We are able to go back and be mentally tough enough to still defend.”
Irish senior guard/forward and captain Pat Connaughton said the team’s offensive approach becomes more aggressive when shots behind the arc are not falling.
“We’re a great shooting team, but there are nights when you’re not on your game, and you’re not going to be shooting the ball particularly well,” he said Saturday. “You just have to figure out how to positively affect the game in other ways, and I thought we did that by attacking the basket, shooting the free throws, dishing it off to the big guys and getting some buckets.”
Mount St. Mary’s is the last opponent Notre Dame will play before it starts its ACC season with a game against Florida State this Saturday. The Irish, however, play three more non-conference games, including a matchup with Purdue at the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis, before resuming ACC play against Georgia Tech on Jan. 3.
Brey said Notre Dame will focus on a few key areas over the course of its remaining nonconference schedule.
“Not having slippage defensively, staying on that, keeping that in the forefront,” Brey said of the key to the next few games. “We’re trying to improve as a defensive rebounding team. I think that’s an area we’re going to always have to look at. What forwards are we using off the bench — that could be by committee — and what do we do with another guard? … I think those are things we need to look at here up until Christmas.”
Notre Dame will try to focus on these areas when it hosts a Mount St. Mary’s team coming off a 74-65 win over Loyola (Maryland). The Mountaineers, who have played only one home game this season, have dropped road contests at No. 3 Arizona, Seton Hall and Wake Forest.
Mount St. Mary’s has shot 40.2 percent from the field this season, well behind Notre Dame’s nationally leading mark of 55.8 percent. The Mountaineers have been led by graduate student forward Kristijan Krajina, who is first on the team with 9.2 points per game and second with 4.8 rebounds per game.
Even with a conference opener against the Seminoles looming, the Irish will be careful not to overlook Mount St. Mary’s, Brey said.
“I’m not as concerned about [a letdown],” Brey said. “I think we’ve been kind of a poor team, and who are we to look past anybody?”
Notre Dame aims to extend its winning streak to five games when the Irish meet Mount St. Mary’s tonight. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion.