The mass of Michigan State fans smelled blood in the water as they took over the south side of Purcell Pavilion Wednesday night. The chants of “Go Green! Go White!” before a late evening tip were filled more with expectation than encouragement.
A Notre Dame team coming off a double-digit loss to St. Bonaventure on Friday in Elmont, New York? That had let the Bonnies begin on a 22-9 run? That had shot 2 of 17 from three? That was near the bottom of the ACC in… assists? (You couldn’t find a more out of character stat for a Mike Brey team if you tried.)
Please. Time for the No. 20 Spartans to help their fans cement the South Bend takeover.
The most experienced team in the Power Five had other ideas, especially after Cormac Ryan decided to turn the clock back to March.
Ryan led all scorers with 23, 20 of which came in a torrid first half, and the Irish (6-1) led the Spartans (5-3) by as many as 23 in a 70-52 romp. Friday suddenly seemed a long time ago.
“Who was that team I took to Long Island?” Brey laughed as he took his seat in front of reporters postgame.
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo was wondering the same thing. He said he had warned his team, however, that Ryan’s 5 for 23 mark from three in the first six games was an aberration.
“I think we were still trying to find ourselves,” said Ryan, who went 5 of 5 from beyond the arc in the first half. “And we picked a good night to figure it out.”
There will be some more adjusting to do when Niagara grad transfer Marcus Hammond likely returns from a knee injury and plays his first game in an Irish uniform Saturday against Syracuse. The Irish need Hammond, who Brey said was the team’s most efficient scorer in practice before the injury. A six-man rotation won’t get the job done over 30-plus games, plus postseason.
With backs already up against the wall, however, in their first opportunity for a quality win, the Irish were all right. Especially with March Cormac in the building.
Remember those 29 points in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Alabama, the most in a Tournament game during Brey’s tenure? Those seven 3s?
That guy’s back.
“He’s our voice,” Brey said. “He's our vibe. He's our emotion. He just sets the tone for us.”
Before practice, Ryan will sometimes text Brey suggestions for what drills to run. When Brey takes the captains out for some steak and real talk, it’s Ryan doing most of the talking.
“That was (Ben) Hansbrough-like. (Pat) Connaughton-like,” Brey said, referencing two of the best all-conference guards he’s had in his 23-year tenure.
Ryan brought that trademark intensity Wednesday.
He also provided buckets, hitting an early 3 as the Irish raced out to an early 16-8 lead. Then came his first set of eight straight points after the under-12 timeout: two 3s sandwiched by a wide open pull-up in the paint and a huge fist pump after Nate Laszewski took a charge. A.J Hoggard, who led the Spartans with 15 points, also interrupted Ryan’s spree with a 3, but a layup and foul from freshman forward Ven-Allen Lubin made it 26-11 at the under-8.
“They smashed us in the mouth,” Izzo said of the Irish, who shot 8 of 13 from three and over 55% from the field in the first half.
Izzo admitted the Spartans went under screens early because of Notre Dame’s recent shooting struggles. That didn’t last. Not that it would have helped on some of the bombs from well behind the arc.
“I don’t know if God could have covered some of those shots,” Izzo said.
Irish fans in the crowd of 7,854, the largest in Purcell this season, finally remembered they were rooting for the home team. Just when Michigan State might have gained a foothold, Ryan decided to be a fifth-year senior captain. Decided to get Purcell rocking.
A personal 8-0 spurt from Ryan featuring two more 3s and a tough layup put the Irish up 39-16 with 4:30 to go in the half. Ryan 19, Spartans 16.
Oh yeah, all while guarding the other team’s best scorer, too. Michigan State’s Tyson Walker entered Wednesday averaging 15.6 points per game. He finished with 12 on 4-of-13 shooting.
Twice, Brey said, he asked his assistants if he should give Ryan a break.
Their answer? A resounding “nope.” Ryan was the only player on the floor to play all forty minutes.
Notre Dame only needed one 3 from Ryan in the second half to weather a modest comeback from the Spartans, who never got within 14.
After three straight losses in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the Irish finished the last edition by taking their rubber match vs. the Spartans. After beating Michigan State by one in overtime in 2014, Notre Dame finally got payback Wednesday for the pummeling it took in East Lansing three years later.
Freshman J.J. Starling punctuated a night in which the Irish showed no fear with some tough drives early and plenty of play making late. Despite going 0 for 7 from three, the highest-ranked recruit in program history was Notre Dame’s second leading scorer with 14.
The remaining fans rose to their feet in the final two minutes after a turnaround jumper and a pair of blocks from Starling. Dane Goodwin kept them there with a 3 to join Starling and Ryan in double figures with 12.
Sparty fans had already piled out en masse. Script flipped. Home court defended.
Call it the Cormac Ryan effect.