The Pieces Are Coming Together For Guard Cormac Ryan, Notre Dame Fighting Irish Men’s Basketball After Win Over Duke
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The Pieces Are Coming Together For Cormac Ryan

Sometime in the depths of last season, Mike Brey told Notre Dame then-sophomore guard Cormac Ryan to throw the name Andrew Toney in a Google search.

A 1980s NBA star for the Philadelphia 76ers, Toney earned the nickname “The Boston Strangler” because of his penchant for single-handed takedowns of the Celtics in the playoffs. He was no secret, no wizard with new tricks. No one had an answer for him anyway. Brey, in watching Ryan practice against Notre Dame’s white jersey starters as a redshirt, saw some parallels.

“‘I said, ‘Cormac, you’re the white-shirt strangler,'” Brey told BlueandGold.com last summer. “Every day in practice, he’d want to kick their asses. There were days he put on a show in five-on-five and I’d look at my assistants, roll my eyes and say, ‘Dang, we don’t have him this year.’”

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball junior guard Cormac Ryan
Ryan (5) scored a career-high 28 points in Notre Dame’s 93-89 win at Duke. (ACC)

Brey routinely discussed Ryan with similar reverence between his spring 2019 arrival as a transfer from Stanford and the start of Notre Dame’s 2020-21 season. Yes, the idea a team’s best player is a sit-out transfer is a cliché old as the sport itself, but his name just kept popping up. Ryan, now a junior, was seen as a ceiling raiser for this year’s team — another shooter unafraid to get down and dirty who plays with an entire Pringles can on his shoulder.

That version of him, though, didn’t surface when the Irish began play. It merely came in fits and bursts. At times, he looked like a steamroller stuck in drive. At others, he played as if he were at a yellow stoplight. In Notre Dame’s first nine games, he averaged 8.6 points while shooting 32.9 percent (26 of 79) from the floor with 17 turnovers. Yet Brey kept trotting him out there, those sit-out year practices still fresh in his mind.

Eventually, flickers of dynamic ability became longer flashes.

Tuesday in a 93-89 Irish win over Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Ryan was impossible to extinguish. In his first start since Jan. 24, he poured in a career-high 28 points, 21 in the first half, and made nine straight shots. All told, he was 10 of 16 from the field, 4 of 7 on threes and 4 of 5 from the foul line with an assist. He disrupted, too, drawing two charges and collecting three steals.

“I didn’t know it’d be like that,” Brey said afterward. “He was fabulous. He was due.”

This was the side of him who took names and left his mark on practices, the former top-100 recruit with many possibilities.

It didn’t entirely come out of nowhere. In eight games since Jan. 10 (he did not play in a Jan. 27 loss to Virginia Tech), Ryan is averaging 13.3 points and shooting 50 percent with a 2:1 assist-turnover ratio. He’s up to 37 percent on three-pointers for the season. He was the best player on the floor Tuesday, a dialed-in scorer who kept the Irish in the game in a firework-filled first half and a defensive linchpin in the second. He was the spine who held it all together.

“He’s finally playing how we’ve all seen him play,” Notre Dame junior point guard Prentiss Hubb said.

Ryan’s importance to Notre Dame has made itself clearer over the course of the season. His adaptation into the role as a 31-minute-per-game guard next to Hubb has been a gradual process. On this team, with this veteran crew around him, there’s a balance to learn of when to take over, when to defer. It hasn’t been entirely simple or even a linear progression.

Just three days earlier, in an 82-80 loss at Georgia Tech, there was too much deferral. With six seconds left and a chance to tie or win on the final possession, Ryan sprinted down the baseline to the wing, hand up, asking for the ball. Hubb flung it to him from a crowd of three defenders. Ryan caught it, one defender near him with a hand down. He didn’t let it rip. Instead, a side-step, slight head fake and pass off.

Buzzer. No shot. Game over. Ryan trudged off, hands on head. Should’ve fired the shot right away, Brey later said.

In response, Brey tossed him into the starting lineup against Duke for the first time in five games. He didn’t want Ryan to dwell on passing up the shot. Flush it and take the new opportunity.

Message received.

“That’s just part of playing basketball,” Ryan said. “You have ups and downs. Coach was good at keeping us focused and energized even after a crushing loss.”

Ryan put up three shots in the first five minutes. Misses, but aggressive, makeable attempts. Then came a flood. First, an interception steal on the wing and transition floater. Then, 42 seconds later, a drive from the wing and layup against Duke sophomore forward Wendell Moore, arguably the Blue Devils’ best defender. Later, a layup when he attacked 7-foot freshman Mark Williams on a switch and finished over him.

When the first half ended, Ryan had already surpassed his career high of 19 points and made his last eight field goal attempts. Notre Dame, despite allowing 50 points, trailed by only five.

“I thought he was fabulous picking his spots,” Brey said. “He kept us in the game. We were dead in the water in the first half. In the second half, some other guys got going, other things were happening, so he just played basketball.”

What did that look like? Not pressing the gas when an open road wasn’t there. And defending. With 16:01 left, one possession after making his fourth three-pointer of the night, Ryan found himself on the wing one-on-one with Duke freshman guard D.J. Steward, who attacked him. Ryan forced him to the baseline, stopped the ball, deflected a messy pass attempt and caught it for his third steal.

The best display of toughness came last. With Notre Dame leading 87-85 and needing a stop, Ryan stopped the ball in transition by planting himself at the top of the key in front of Duke’s Jordan Goldwire. A pass to the wing went to Blue Devils freshman guard Jeremy Roach, who took a dribble, crossed over and tried to post up as Ryan slid in front. Roach’s elbow extended too hard, too far.

Whistle. Turnover with 66 seconds left. Notre Dame pushed its lead to five on the ensuing possession.

“A bang-bang play,” Ryan said. “Glad it went our way. My chest hurts a little bit, but that’s life.”

He has supplied plenty of life during the Irish’s 5-2 run, even if there are still a few bumps. On the whole, Ryan’s defense has been just passable. Even in this game, there were drives he struggled to contain. Of late, though, any hiccups are outweighed by the good. The net gains are the result of patience for a player who took a year off game action.

“It’s just a matter of time with him,” Brey said, “as he’s getting more and more comfortable playing for us.”

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