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November 17, 2013

Irish eyes are crying: ISU beats No. 21 Notre Dame

Sycamores use early lead, late run for upset victory

SOUTH BEND — Not ... this ... time.

Indiana State experienced the sting of squandering a 16-point halftime lead at Belmont on Thursday, and after No. 21 Notre Dame wiped out a 10-point ISU halftime lead in five minutes, that sinking feeling was settling in again.

But the Sycamores were made of tougher stuff on Sunday at the Joyce Center. After ISU was punched, the Sycamores stood tall and delivered an 18-3 counterpunch. Notre Dame didn’t know what hit it and never recovered, as the Sycamores earned an impressive 83-70 victory.

Justin Gant led ISU (2-1) with 17 points and was one of five Sycamores in double figures. Khristian Smith had 15 points and was vital in ISU’s first- and second-half surges (see related story). Those were two of many Sycamores who contributed.

“It was a heck of a team win,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said. “I’m so proud of these guys. Our focus after the debacle at Belmont was by 2:30 today to forget all about that game. These guys are a smart, hard-working group that beat a very good team today.”

It was ISU’s second consecutive win against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent; the Sycamores defeated Miami in December 2012.

It was also the first November loss Notre Dame (2-1) has suffered on its home floor during the 14 years Mike Brey has coached the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame had been 48-0 in November under Brey until Sunday.

These were all feathers in ISU’s cap — the $85,000 guarantee Notre Dame paid ISU will feather the athletic coffers — but what was important to ISU was regaining its pride after the Belmont loss. Mission accomplished.

It helped that ISU has done this before. The team reached deep and fell back on its wins over Mississippi, Miami, Wichita State and Creighton to provide the gumption to beat the Irish.

“We played a lot of big games and had success in them. We didn’t get too excited when we had the lead and we didn’t get too down when they took the lead. We did what we do best, we defended, rebounded and took good shots on offense,” Gant said.

ISU scored 80 points or more for the third time in as many games. The Sycamores shot 48.3 percent and converted 16 of 17 at the line.

Before shots began to fall, the Sycamores had to get cooking on the defensive end. Notre Dame had a stretch of 12 in 13 possessions where it failed to score. It was a welcome return of ISU’s identity after the Belmont debacle, and it allowed the Sycamores to kick the door in with their offense.

As it was on Thursday at Belmont, it was Khristian Smith who lit the fuse for the Sycamores. The sophomore scored nine points in succession for the Sycamores and ignited what became a 12-2 run to put the Sycamores up 19-7.

Then the 3-point shots rained down on the Irish from a bevy of Sycamores. ISU hit six 3s in a row. Smith, Brandon Burnett, Devonte Brown, Dawon Cummings and Justin Gant all got into the act. The sharpshooting pushed ISU’s lead to 14. ISU led 40-30 at halftime.

“It was definitely a good roll,” said Burnett, who had seven points. “It was one of those times where everything was falling. We have good shot prep in practice, but it starts with penetration. Our shooters did a good job spotting up.”

ISU’s run was even more impressive considering that Manny Arop and Demetrius Moore were off the floor for a long part of it because of foul trouble.

“You have to thrive off that,” Lansing said. “We have a tremendous bench. We want our second five to be as good as our five. I think we have a team like that.”

ISU let its concentration slip in the first five minutes of the second half and Notre Dame was too good to not take advantage. The Irish opened the half on a 15-4 run and took a 45-44 lead on a three-point play by Austin Burgett.

“We came out and clock-watched a bit too much,” Lansing said. “You have to stay aggressive. We controlled the game because we were the more aggressive team and we didn’t do that to start [the second half].”

The Sycamores had seen this movie before and were determined to not experience a repeat. Once again, it was Smith who provided the jump-start.

His runner at 14:46 and his 19-footer at 14:05 helped ISU breathe a sigh of relief as it took a 48-45 lead. Then the Sycamores turned up the wick.

Notre Dame turned it over on three straight trips, leading to a Jake Odum layup and a Cummings steal and bucket. Notre Dame failed to score a field goal from the 15:07 mark to the 7:38. ISU kept the pressure on and its 18-3 run restored its 14-point advantage as it led 62-48.

“In practice, coach just talked about ‘finishing, finishing,’” Smith said. “Things are going to happen on the road, things aren’t going to go your way. We had to be the tougher team, and at the end of the day, we were.”

ISU’s lead peaked at 15 with six minutes left when Notre Dame conjured a response. A 7-0 Fighting Irish run cut ISU’s lead to 66-58 with 4:57 left. Notre Dame still had time.

Cummings stemmed the tide. He stole the ball from Jerian Grant and went coast-to-coast for a bucket at 4:05 to make it 68-58. The play broke Notre Dame’s momentum, and the Irish would not get within eight the rest of the way.

“Coach [Lansing] didn’t want me to worry about shots, ” Cummings said. “I needed to start helping the team by anticipating on the defensive end and using my athleticism to get in passing lanes. I focused on defense and let my offense go from there.”

ISU held Grant — who had averaged 20.5 points — to 4-of-14 shooting. The Irish shot 36.9 percent, the first time ISU has held an opponent under 50 percent this season.

“We kind of let up a little bit,” Gant said. “We felt like, after we took the lead, this was our game. We had to keep playing ... and you saw what happened

The Sycamores know it all too well, having experienced it themselves three days ago. They were gratified to avoid a repeat.

“It’s nice that we learned from our last game,” Odum said. “We slipped a little bit, but this is a top-25 team, so we knew they were going to be ready to go. When they battled back, we stayed composed.”

ISU next plays Truman State at 7:05 p.m. Friday in Hulman Center.

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