UL-Notre Dame: Tomorrow's column tonight

What I filed, unedited, for tomorrow morning’s paper . . .

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The halftime clock was ticking down. Under one minute. Under 45 seconds. Notre Dame’s basketball team was starting to huddle around coach Mike Brey, and they had to be wondering:

Is the University of Louisville coming out for the second half?

A fair question, since they didn’t come out for the first.

And the answer? Well, you know the answer if you watched last night’s Irish wake, a 90-57 Notre Dame romp that laid to rest its seven-game losing streak and left Cardinals coach Rick Pitino seeing some ghosts of the past.

“This was about as good an ass-kicking as I’ve gotten in a long time,” Pitino said, searching his memory and landing on a 150-95 loss at Kansas in his fifth game as Kentucky’s coach. “Kansas, I think. Brings back good memories.”

It was U of L’s worst loss overall since a 34-point pounding at Charlotte in Denny Crum’s final season.

But those two losses weren’t sustained by Top 10 teams. After delaying its trip to Notre Dame until yesterday morning because of a Wednesday windstorm, who’d have thought U of L would get blown away in South Bend?

Pitino had an inkling. I had an inkling watching pregame warm-ups. We’ll get to the Cardinals in a second, but let’s acknowledge this from the top. Notre Dame did not play like a team that had lost seven straight. The crowd at the Joyce Center did not have the demeanor of a demoralized fan base. If you want a lesson on how to carry yourself in adversity, study Notre Dame’s effort, determination and body language last night.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, looked defeated. They looked frustrated.

They didn’t take it up strong inside. They didn’t shoot with conviction from the outside. They didn’t guard Notre Dame the way they’ve guarded people for most of the Big East season; the Irish shot 53.8 percent. They didn’t rebound. One of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the Big East, the Irish outrebounded U of L by 20.

Notre Dame deserves a credit for taking seven game’s worth of frustration out on U of L, and Pitino termed the result “humiliating.”

“I knew we were walking into a hornet’s nest,” Pitino said. “I didn’t know we were walking into an earthquake.”

You know it’s bad when you walk up to U of L’s effervescent co-captain Terrence Williams after the game, and he says, politely but firmly, “I have no thoughts.”

Pitino blamed his team’s practice habits. He blamed his veterans for not “practicing with a purpose.” He said his players were going to watch every embarrassing second of this loss on tape. More than anything, he praised Notre Dame.

Though the margin is breathtaking, it also shouldn’t overly magnify the loss. Not while the team still sits a game out of first place in the Big East loss column. Not while Williams’ scoring (13 points per game) has been ground to a halt with the equivalent of a hard cast on his shooting wrist. Not after this team has played the way it has on the road.

At the same time, it’s the second blowout loss in three games for the Cards, and the third straight that they haven’t mounted any coherent offense. And until Earl Clark can figure out a way to finish around the basket while taking contact, and until Williams heals, this is a team that is going to grope on offense.

“We’re lucky to be 9-2 (in the Big East),” Pitino said. “Very lucky. Our effort’s always been good, but our listening skills and our practice skills are not the best.”

Maybe last night will change some of that. “Sometimes a good ass-kicking does you well,” Pitino said.

Sometimes it does. But all the time, it leaves you with an awfully sore backside.


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