SOUTH BEND, Ind. – By the very loose standards that regulate college basketball’s 344 teams, it was the No. 12/13 University of Notre Dame that should have led the Boston University men’s basketball team, 33-27, at the half. Notre Dame should have easily outrebounded an undersized Terrier team. And the Irish should have convincingly won their 41st consecutive game at Joyce Center, especially against a team that hasn’t conquered a ranked opponent since 1959.
Saturday night’s 74-67 loss was one of BU’s best all-around performances in as long as any of its current members have been on the roster, as the Terriers not only held the lead at the break but led for roughly 35 minutes of the game – including all but 1:35 of the first half. They didn’t just win the rebounding battle; they won it convincingly (44-37), including 17 offensive rebounds. And they put a scare into a Fighting Irish squad that didn’t lead the game for good until senior guard Ryan Ayers (10 points, 5 rebounds) connected on a 3-pointer after a nice assist from junior point guard Tory Jackson with 1:21 remaining.
Though Notre Dame’s final margin of victory was seven points, the Fighting Irish never led by more than three points until the game’s final minute-plus. That, more than any of the aforementioned theme’s of BU’s battle against a Big East powerhouse, prompted Notre Dame coach Mike Brey to walk into the postgame press conference and bellow, ‘College basketball, man.’
He’s right. Whether it was BU sophomore John Holland’s (15 points, 9 rebounds) dominant start to the game – during which he hit his first five field goals, including a few difficult jumpers, and assisted on a 3-pointer by junior guard Tyler Morris (12 points, 6 rebounds) – or junior guard Corey Lowe’s incredible second half during which he connected on well-contested step-back 3-pointers from well beyond the arc, or BU’s defensive intensity that helped hold the Irish under 80 points for only the third time this season, the Terriers (5-4) didn’t look like a timid mid-major opponent coming to Notre Dame (7-2) for kicks. They came to win.
‘Obviously we’re disappointed,’ BU coach Dennis Wolff said. ‘Notre Dame deserves credit for making the plays that they made at the end of the game. I’m really proud of the effort our kids gave. They really worked hard on the defensive end in some situations where we were mismatched. Offensively, we were unselfish and kids stepped up and made shots. We gave ourselves a chance, but at the end we didn’t make enough plays.’
Given the fact that this was the same Terrier team that got outrebounded by St. Peter’s College in late November, BU’s effort on the boards and ability to secure loose balls was extremely impressive. The Terriers began the game exuding energy, and it propelled them to an early 10-point lead. What was surprising is they never lost that spark, and even a frontcourt defense that had struggled in previous games held its own against the Fighting Irish.
‘They came out loose, they got out of the gate great,’ Brey, who used to coach at the University of Delaware when it was a member of America East, said. ‘Every time we tied or made a run in the second half, they came out and hit two bombs.’
In the second half, the focus of the game fell on three players – junior forward Luke Harangody, senior guard Kyle McAlarney and Lowe. All three kept their team in the game, with Harangody maneuvering brilliantly in the post, McAlarney (16 points) hitting three timely 3-pointers and Lowe scoring 17 of his 19 points (including the 1,000th of his career) following a first half during which he shot 1-of-11 from the floor.
‘We got worn down a little bit in the second half trying to guard Harangody in the lane,’ Wolff said. ‘We got in a couple situations where we doubled and we didn’t make the right rotations. A couple times John [Holland] made fabulous plays and the ball just happened to bounce to them. That’s kind of the way it goes sometimes.’
Brey made a conscious effort to get the ball to Harangody in the second half, but it was McAlarney who ignited the Joyce Center crowd.
‘We did it because our life was flashing before our eyes, but we ran our offense and I thought he was fabulous on when to make a move and when to kick it out,’ Brey said of feeding Harangody (23 points, 15 rebounds) in the low post. ‘He had five assists and we were smart. In the first half, we quick-shot a little bit and it played into their hands. They played like a more veteran team than us in the first half.’
Despite the emergence of the reigning Big East Player of the Year in the second half, the Terriers withstood Harangody’s effective decision making and answered back. It’s the kind of fight that defines a team, especially in the face of such a strong opponent. Each time it looked as though Notre Dame gained enough momentum to fuel a run, one of BU’s shooters connected on a difficult shot, making the 10,515 fans in attendance slightly less sure their team was going to extend its streak.
‘They made some in the second half, where we defended it pretty good, that break your spirit a little bit,’ Brey said. ‘Mine was starting to wonder, quite frankly, and our guys kept hanging in there.’
Lowe was the main culprit of Brey’s wondering mind, as he hit all four of his 3-pointers and six of his field goals in the second half.
‘They came out paying a lot of attention to me,’ Lowe said. ‘I just didn’t hit the shots in the first half and in the second half, I hit them. I tried to stay focused and stay in the gameplan and wait for my shot to fall.’
Oddly enough, it was the first time this season BU trailed a game with 5:00 remaining and, despite the Terriers’ game-long effort to keep it close, they managed just one field goal in the final 3:25 (when they led by two points).
Following a missed jumper by freshman forward Jake O’Brien (8 points, 6 rebounds) with Notre Dame leading by three, the Terriers elected to play defense, hoping to get a shot at a final possession to tie. Lowe, however, fouled McAlarney with nine seconds on the shot clock, sending him to line to practically ice the game.
‘We didn’t want to foul,’ Wolff said. ‘But, we also wouldn’t have been sitting there without what Corey Lowe did in that game. When you’re playing as many minutes as some of these kids did, sometimes fatigue gets a little bit of the better of you.’
For more on Saturday’s game, including photos and audio clips, visit www.dailyfreepress.com/hoops.