Saturday night vs. NCAA Tourney regular Gonzaga, the senior-laden group responded in a matter more becoming of a contender, holding off two charges for an 83-79 victory at a raucous (for the first time this season) Purcell Pavilion.
Notre Dame led 41-32 late in the first half but the desperate Zags, losers of their last two and four this season, tied the Irish at 50 near the 15-minute mark with the latter half of the rally courtesy a zone defense that caught the Irish off guard with a pair of turnovers and forced shots.
But unlike Wednesday night in Freedom Hall vs. the Wildcats, Notre Dame's mental toughness shone through as Tim Abromaitis stroked a pair of assisted three point shots and followed with a backdoor cut for a dunk – the first eight points in a 13-3 Irish run and 20-7 stretch that staked the hosts to a 70-57 lead with just under seven minutes remaining.
True to their decade-long form, Gonzaga would not fold, chipping away at the advantage with timely three-point baskets – and a quintet of clanged freebies by Irish free throw shooters.
Though the Bulldogs never had a chance to tie or take the lead they did trim the margin to two, 79-77 with 13 seconds remaining. Irish senior guard Ben Hansbrough ended the wild comeback, sinking four free throws in the final seconds to preserve what should be perceived as Notre Dame's fourth quality win of the non-conference season.
"That's the guy," Brey said of Hansbrough as his choice for game-determining foul shots. "I thought he was really good tonight because he didn't force it. It wasn't a night where he was rolling."
Hansbrough had previously missed three of five free throws in the contest.
The game came down to the charity stripe because the athletic, determined Zags refused to quit, calmly chipping into the aforementioned Irish leads with quality shot selection (52.7 percent for the game including an 11-20 effort from long range) and unselfish basketball with four players reaching double figures.
"They're hard to get away from," Brey said of the Zags persistent weapons.
Key to the final separation was a loose ball corralled by Irish freshman point guard Eric Atkins. A 75-67 ND lead with 1:07 remaining turned to a precarious 77-74 edge at the 37-second mark but Atkins venture after a loose ball stopped the bleeding in the Irish backcourt and calmed Brey's squad down after a surprising turnover/bucket by Hansbrough deep in his own end.
"Eric Atkins getting that loose ball – that was maybe the biggest play down the stretch," Brey noted. "His speed to chase that down and he was fabulous tonight. He's a freshman, and in this atmosphere at home, I'm so pleased with his confidence and development."
Atkins played 34 minutes off the bench, scoring 12 points with seven rebounds (six defensive) while not committing a turnover. The freshman did show his green side, missing 5 of 10 free throws including 3 of 4 with under a minute remaining before Hansbrough's 4-4 and a 1-2 effort by Carleton Scott ended the proceedings.
Scott led the Irish with 23 points, 19 of which were scored in a 15-minute effort in the first half. Scott played just six minutes in the second stanza as the Irish offense embarked on its decisive mid-half run without him.
"Nobody really forced it tonight," Brey said while offering that Atkins, Abromaitis and Scott each had their moments during the contest. "If we can continue to be secure enough to ride the guy that's doing it, we have a chance to be pretty good."
Scott his 6 of 9 shots including 3 of 5 from downtown while blocking two shots vs. 7-0 Bulldogs center Robert Sacre. Sacre fouled out late but finished with 16 points and 6 boards on 8-13 shooting.
The Zags were led by shooting guard Steven Gray's 18 points and 8 assists while previously struggling – and injured – sophomore Elias Harris served as the high point man for the visitors with an efficient (6 for 9 from the floor and 6-6 free throws) 18 points.
"I think we moved the ball more," Brey said of Saturday's conquest vs. Wednesday's flameout. "I think against Kentucky in that atmosphere (Freedom Hall was Lexington North on Wednesday in Louisville), we got a little frazzled and we shot after two passes instead of after five or seven passes. We talked about screening more for each other but I think that helped make us more efficient."
Abromaitis added 21 points to go with a team-best eight rebounds. The senior drilled 4 of 6 from beyond the arc in 39 minutes of action. Hansbrough also reached double digits with 13 points while Scott Martin scored 9, showing well early in the contest.
Notre Dame received a huge lift from its seventh-man, sophomore Jack Cooley. The big man from Glen Brook played just nine minutes but came up with two steals, a blocked shot and two points along with an offensive board. Both of Cooley's steals led to Irish baskets as did his interior rebound.
Statistically similar, both teams hit 11 of 20 from long range and hovered near 50 percent (ND 24-48; Gonzaga 29-55 from the floor). The Zags enjoyed 20 assists vs. 9 turnovers; the Irish 19 and 8.
But as has been their wont this winter, Notre Dame's decisive advantage from the foul line proved critical in yet another victory as Brey's troops hit 24 of 36 attempts vs. the visitor's 10 in 12 foul shot offerings.
Gonzaga fell to 4-5 on the season with three losses to top 25 foes including the 23rd ranked IRish.
Now 9-1, Notre Dame won't play again until next Sunday afternoon (December 19) and a home date with a solid Stony Brook team at the Purcell Pavilion.
The Irish begin conference play vs. Georgetown in South Bend on December 29.