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December 23, 2007Notre Dame avoided a post finals funk, no problem. As for setting aside the Christmas crazies, that proved a little more difficult on Saturday afternoon.
After bolting to an eight-point lead in 79 seconds and nearly tripling up San Francisco midway through the first half, Notre Dame started thinking more about holiday dinner than how to carve up their middling guests from the West Coast Conference.
The Irish started turning the ball over. They stopped connecting from distance.
"I thought about Santa Claus too fast," said Tory Jackson.
Jackson settled down Notre Dame by giving a few gifts, a season-high 10 assists to go with his season-high 15 points. It was the kind of game the Irish (8-2) had been waiting for from the sophomore jitterbug who toyed with San Francisco (4-8) as much as he played against the Dons in a 84-76 win, Notre Dame's 26th straight at the Joyce Center.
That 8-0 spurt to start the game included a pair of three-pointers off Jackson assists. A 16-2 burst midway through the first half that put Notre Dame ahead 36-13 featured eight points from the sophomore including a few moves that left San Francisco gasping for air.
In one sequence Jackson first grabbed an offensive rebound then faked a behind-the-back pass that suckered the Dons' defense to let the sophomore sink an easy lay-up. Kyle McAlarney forced a steal on the next possession and tipped the ball to Jackson, who fired it to Rob Kurz for another lay-up and a 23-point lead.
"It was Tory Jackson in a groove tonight so you let him go," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. "I thought he started the game with great decisions. He put a lot of pressure on them the whole night."
Classmate Luke Harangody wasn't bad either, leading Notre Dame with 23 points and 10 rebounds. He pieced together his own run in the second half after San Francisco pulled within 58-53 with 9:24 remaining. Harangody scored the game's next eight points thanks in part to two Jackson assists.
By the time Harangody was done Notre Dame had bolted to a 66-53 advantage with San Francisco coach Jessie Evans' only salvation found in a 30-second timeout.
"It got to the point where it got a little tight there and I thought I could take my man in the post," Harangody said.
That's the initiative Brey wants to hear from Harangody, Notre Dame's leading scorer and rebounder with two games left in the non-conference schedule. The Irish host Brown on Dec. 29 and North Florida on Dec. 31 before moving into their Big East slate.
"Our best comfort zone is when he's in the low post and we play off of him," Brey said. "We had trouble scoring when he wasn't in the game."
For that more credit goes to the holiday schedule than San Francisco, even if the Dons put together a 12-0 run early in the second half.
After opening the game with a flurry the Irish wanted to finish it as soon as possible to start their five-day vacations. The game story became getting in the walk-ons, not grinding out an off-the-radar result.
But when the latter became essential Brey was determined to make this game something other than a holiday break delay. He stuck with his eight-man rotation, although Jonathan Peoples played just eight minutes with Jackson clicking.
"Human nature definitely kicks in," Brey said. "I thought we were better to finish it."
Thanks in large part to Jackson, who shined throughout with the same glare that put him on the Big East all-rookie team last season. Jackson got his 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting and didn't attempt a three-pointer, content to leave the long-range game to his teammates. Ryan Ayers (nine points) hit three triples and McAlarney (14 points) had a pair. Kurz (12 points, eight rebounds) and Peoples (three points) each hit one.
"The game I had, I give the praises to them," Jackson said. "Now a lot of teams go and close out on Ryan and Kyle and even Rob. They go and find them in transition and I can just go and get past them and get to the rack."
Jackson can keep driving. He'll just be headed out of town this time with Santa on the brain.
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