The defensive pressure and solid shooting continued throughout the second half. Colin Falls led all Irish scorers with 19 points and freshman Kyle McAlarney scored a career-high 16 points as Notre Dame (6-2) pulled away from Niagara to win 80-59. Before just over 8,000 fans at the Joyce Center, a 20-5 second half run by the Irish stretched a one-point lead to a 62-46 advantage to put the game away. It wasn’t as easy as the final score might have indicated.
“Their style of play is unique,” head coach Mike Brey said. “It really bothered us in the first half. It gave us problems. In the second half, we did a better job handling the basketball and taking care of it and controlling the tempo.”
Niagara pulled to 42-41 on a jump shot by James Mathis but the Irish got some key defensive stops and some clutch shooting to turn the close score into a comfortable margin. Torin Francis, who had 14 points and nine rebounds, scored six straight points to bulge the lead to 50-41. McAlarney’s second three-pointer of the key stretch put Notre Dame up 16 points as Niagara never got closer than 12 for the rest of the game. After getting his first start of the year last game at IPFW, McAlarney had his best day in an Irish uniform. The stat line of 6-of-8 from the field, including four three-pointers, might jump out at many but it was his defense that impressed his head coach the most.
“I think you’re seeing confidence in a guy who got a start and played in a tough game and is feeling good about himself,” Brey said. “Of course, he gave us good minutes off the bench against Michigan. He’s a fearless guy. Chris Quinn couldn’t pressure the ball because of his ankle. When Kyle came in to pressure the ball, I think that gave us the spurt which I was hoping for. Kyle’s ball pressure was excellent and I’m shocked when he doesn’t shoot it like that because I know he can really shoot it.”
“Coach has really been emphasizing my ball pressure,” McAlarney said. “I just wanted to go in there and make as many defensive stops as I could. We think that the best offense is a good defense. When you make defensive plays, it can get you in a roll and a rhythm and you get confidence. That’s what we did.”
For Niagara, they lost their seventh straight game of the season after winning their first two contests. The Purple Eagle were led by Charron Fisher’s 19 points and Mathis’s 12. Niagara’s leading scorer coming into the game, Lorenzo Miles at 18.3 PPG, was held to 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting, including just 2-of-8 from three-point range. The Purple Eagle were dreadful from behind the arc, hitting just 7-of-33 long distance shots and 31 percent from the field for the entire contest. Head coach Jim Mihalich saw it as the tale of two halves.
“I’m really disappointed with about 20 minutes of that ballgame,” Mihalich said. “My knee-jerk is that for 20 minutes we were not very good to say the least. But for the other 20 minutes, I thought we played pretty hard. We scrapped, played hard around the basket and overachieved. We were in the game. But for the other 20 minutes, we kind of shot ourselves in the foot a lot.
“I really like their team. They really have good chemistry with them. When those young guys get a little better, and they will with each passing day, I think this is going to be a real, real good team. They have a couple of real special players.”
Those first 20 minutes saw Niagara keep it a game by capitalizing off Notre Dame turnovers. The Irish committed 12 in the first half and 20 for the game. A Miles basket gave the Purple Eagle a 20-15 lead midway through the first half. But a 16-1 Notre Dame run, capped off by a Rick Cornett strong post move, gave the Irish a 31-21 lead. Cornett finished the game with 10 points. But Niagara would not go away. A Fisher three-pointer cut the lead to 34-31 before Carter’s buzzer-beating long distance bomb to send the Irish into the locker room with the lead and momentum.