Notre Dame shook off a Holiday tournament hangover to shake free from the Indiana State Sycamores, 81-72 tonight at the Purcell Pavilion.
The Irish struggled defensively for the first time this season; bothered by the visitors' outside touch, namely a 5-8 shooting effort by Jake Kelly and a few quick moves to the rim from athletic guard Dwayne Lathan.
"They had some pretty quick guards and were able to get in the lane, but they were good shooters too," noted senior forward Tim Abromaitis who finished with 13 points in 33 minutes.
"Kind of a grind-it-out game and you could have almost predicted it," offered Irish head coach Mike Brey acknowledging the team's likely letdown after a weekend tourney title won in Orlando.
"They're hard to guard with their continuous ball screens; that really bothered us the first 10 minutes of the game. I thought we did a better job the last 30 minutes of defending the ball screen and in the second half we got into a better offensive rhythm."
ISU held leads of 16-12 and 30-27 before Brey's veteran crew began to exert its muscle, embarking on a 11-3 run in the final six minutes of the first half to take a 38-33 edge into the break.
The first half was a little sloppy for us, we weren't playing to our potential at all," admitted senior Ben Hansbrough. "We addressed that in the locker room. If we're going to do things we want to do this year, like we did last week, is play to our potential. Not play to the level of our competition.
"You look at a lot of veteran teams – they finish halves," he continued. "They're vets, they know what to do. They don't make ‘young mistakes' like shooting bad shots. We were really able to do that tonight. We kept playing and we got our flow in the second half.'
The Irish momentum continued into the second stanza, scoring the half's first eight points on a Tyrone Nash post move followed by two 3-point buckets from Abromaitis and Hansbrough, both courtesy of unselfish passing from the confident, veteran unit.
Key to the turnaround was the team's help defense as seven Irish defenders, including freshman guard Eric Atkins and sophomore swingman Joey Brooks, held the Sycamores to just six points over the first six minutes of the second half while forcing another four minute drought in which the visitors managed just six points as the Irish slowly pulled away.
Hansbrough keyed the second-half blitz, scoring 14 points in a 10-minute span including a 4 for 4 effort from long range. The combo guard led all scorers with 24 points, 19 of which occurred after intermission.
"Ben really let the game come to him," offered Irish head coach Mike Brey. "He got some stuff off the ball; we screened for him and he knocked down a couple of jump shots. He's such a mentally and physically tough guy. I told him today that I'm so proud how he's leading us. He's really set a great tone for us."
The Sycamores battled deficits of 10-14 for the bulk of the second half though they did draw to within eight, 76-68 with under 50 seconds remaining but Hansbrough, then Nash salted away the victory with four consecutive free throws.
"It wasn't pretty; it wasn't flowing great, but like down in Orlando, nobody panicked," Brey offered of the workmanlike effort. "Joey (Brooks) gave us a great lift. He gave us what we envisioned him giving us."
One defensive switch; one switch clicked?Senior guard Jake Kelly got the visitors in gear early, scoring 12 first half points and giving Abromaitis fits from the perimeter. That's where Hansbrough stepped up yet again.
"He got going and he got them confident," Brey said of a player whom the Irish had recruited for a time. "Ben wanted him (defensively) and we got Ben on him and he did a good job."
Kelly finished with 17 points, hitting just two field goals in the second stanza.
The Sycamores were led by junior athlete Dwayne Lathan's 22 points though the normally effective and undersized rebounder was held to just one board in 31 minutes.
Notre Dame won the battle of the glass, 36-27 while connecting on 16 of 22 from the charity stripe.
Scott Martin shined early for the Irish, scoring Notre Dame's first seven points and 11 in the opening half. The senior forward appeared to gain confidence with late-game success in Sunday's title tilt vs. Wisconsin in the Old Spice Classic, a key development for an Irish team that would be one offensive threat short without his expected contributions.
"I'm pleased with where Scott Martin has picked up, starting with the second half vs. Wisconsin (Sunday) and into this game. Playing a lot of games has been good for Scott Martin."
Martin has taken the season – both a perceived slump and recent surge – in stride.
"I don't know if something clicked, I was just trying to make plays at the end and doing what I could do to help the team win," Martin noted of a strong finishing effort vs. the Badgers. "I got lucky and made a few plays."
Martin finished with 15 points on 7-12 shooting in 29 minutes.
With eight days prior to its next game, an ESPN SEC/Big East showdown with Kentucky, the roster will work in much-needed rest while attempting to stay fresh. Brey expects two days off over the next four with one hard practice and one shoot-around plus lifting session intermixed.
"Sunday we'll get back after it," he added. "We have a big week."
That big week starts Wednesday night in Louisville with a 9:30 EST tip vs. the Wildcats. It concludes Saturday in South Bend when Gonzaga makes its first visit to campus for an 8:30 showdown on ESPN2.
According to Hansbrough, eight days of game rest won't lead to rust.
"I think this team's old enough to realize we can't show up against Kentucky, with rust on us," he state. "This team won't have any rust."
Notre Dame again placed five in double figures with Nash (16 points, 9 boards) and Carleton Scott (11 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks) joining the fray.
With the win, the Irish joined Cleveland State as the nation's only 8-win teams (both at 8-0). It's Notre Dame's first 8-0 start since 1973 when Digger Phelps's third, and possibly best Irish team, finished 26-3 including the epic, 88-game streak-snapping defeat of UCLA.
Has Brey started 8-0 in his head coaching career?
"My men's league Rec Team, back in Rockville, Maryland," he offered jokingly. "I don't think we lost. I got a lot of shots.
"We're thrilled with the start (the Irish, not his Rec Team). I think its given our guys a lot of confidence. I know we've played eight, but glance at our next eight. I did, and threw it back in my notebook really quick."
In addition to games with Kentucky and Gonzaga the Irish will face a solid Stony Brook team plus Georgetown, Syracuse, Connecticut, St. John's and Marquette by the 10th of January.