Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 81, Texas 80

I'm not sure what I'm more excited about: #8 Notre Dame's victory over #7 Texas today, or the fact that we found out where Bill Raftery will be after tomorrow's game.

So if you happen to be reading this Bill, here's hoping we meet up for a beer after tomorrow's championship game of the EA Sports Maui Invitational. The Irish crashed the party in Hawai'i with clutch offense (though not necessarily clutch free-throw shooting) and defensive discipline that put a huge plus on their NCAA resume before a title shot versus consensus #1 North Carolina.

Going strictly by the stat sheet, this was a performance typical of Notre Dame last season: domination by Luke Harangody (29 points, 12 rebounds) while riding an early hot hand from long range (Kyle McAlarney hit on five of six three-pointers to start the game), then surviving a furious charge from the opponent at the end of the game. Having said all that, the Notre Dame team that took the floor tonight was far different from the one that seemed to be feeling it's way throughout the early stages of 2007. For reference, during last season's island tournament trip, the Irish let not one but two late leads slip away in going 1-2 during the Paradise Jam. This season, even with the blaze of glory AJ Abrams was in down the stretch and their own weakness at the free throw line, the Irish refused to cave (and refused to stop attacking the rim even as they built a lead in the closing minutes, another welcome change).

It would've been nice to be better from the free throw line and put the game on ice earlier (the Irish finished only 10-of-21, granting them an odd distinction of making more three pointers than free throws) but a win is still a win. More significantly, it was a win that quelled a lot of concerns about if this Irish squad could play against other squads bestowed with preseason hype. College basketball is an even bigger crapshoot than football as far as the rankings go, beyond one or two obvious choices (like tomorrow night's opponent, the Tar Heels). Most observers of Irish hoops would've told you this was nice, solid team, probably Top 20. But strong enough and athletic enough to merit being in the Top 10? That would've been a hard sell before seeing how they went toe-to-toe with Texas.

Now comes a new and far stiffer challenge, against a North Carolina team so beset by injuries that "they'll only have 8 NBA players on the team instead of 10" as Kentucky's Billy Gillespie put it. Can the Irish hope to match up with UNC's speed after a grueling semi-final while the Heels have been on cruise control since they landed in Maui, outscoring their opponents by better than 30 points per game? Will reigning national Player of the Year Tyler Hansborough be at 100%? All your questions will be answered tomorrow evening.

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