Friday, November 28, 2008

Post Mortem: North Carolina 102, Notre Dame 87

The Tar Heel faithful at the Lahaina Civic Center chanted "Just like football!" as the final seconds ticked away. Just like football? Not so fast, my friends.

When Notre Dame and UNC met on the gridiron in early October, the game was a tale of two halves - one where Notre Dame played like a confident, maturing team and one where they collapsed on top of themselves, unable to correct their own mistakes in time for the Heels to steal a 29-24 victory which (despite what we all wanted to believe at the time) has done the team far more harm than good. In football, Notre Dame was an equal, if not superior team, and self-destructed.

On the basketball court? Different story. The eighth-ranked Irish were clearly out-manned, out-gunned, and out-muscled. Their only hope was to figure out a way to out-shoot the absurdly talented North Carolina squad, and Kyle McAlarney certainly would be willing to take on any two Heels in a game of H-O-R-S-E. McAlarney's 10 3-pointers broke his own school record set against Syracuse last year, but there was only so much he could do in the final 7 minutes as the entire Carolina two-deep literally shot the lights out of the gym on the Valley Isle.

To the two big questions posed in our recap of the Texas game:

Would the Irish be able to match UNC's speed? Oh, how to put this delicately: no. Ty Lawson ran like he had a jet booster on his sneakers, but that's the type of player he is, putting up a career high in assists (11) to go with 22 points. During the first two games of the tournament we marveled at how rapid Tory Jackson was progressing as a point guard, but tonight he and the rest of the Irish had a front row seat for what the definition of "elite" guard play is. That's why there's no shame in a gutty performance that ended with a 15 point loss. Doesn't matter if it's the Final Four, Maui, or on the moon: UNC is simply too good and too deep to be overcome by anything other than an absolutely flawless performance out of their opponent (and a few key unforced errors on their own part). Neither happened, but there was no dishonor in the way Notre Dame performed. They just didn't stack up all the way like Carolina did.

Would Tyler Hansbrough play/would he be 100%? Yes to the first, but by his and Roy Williams' estimation, 'Psycho T' (or as I will call him from now on, "Ben Hansbrough's older brother") was only at 75% health. If 34 points on 13-of-19 was a three-quarters effort, I pity the folks in the ACC who will have to deal with him once he reaches full strength. Luke Harangody had a tough day at the office both defending and being defended by the Player of the Year, and a daylong bout with the flu certainly couldn't have helped matters. The way Hansbrough was shooting in the first half though, he'd probably have put up the same numbers against the NBA All-Stars.

The postscript on this 25th Maui Invitational should read as follows: Notre Dame found out what kind of team they are (pretty good, but a notch below truly elite) and got a great early litmus test on what kind of team they might yet become. Hearing afterwards how their best player played the championship game hours after being hooked to an IV, and seeing some great development and confidence from some of the key role players the Irish will need this season (Luke Zeller and Ryan Ayers top the list) leaves an Irish fan feeling that this upper echelon ranking might not be such a fluke. The Irish have already gone toe-to-toe with the nation's best. Now bring on the Big East.


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