Mike Brey's Irish faced a daunting first half Big East slate over the last 24 days: three matchups vs. Top 10 teams (two wins); two home-and-home matchups vs. conference peers (splits vs. St. John's and Marquette); and a date with nationally ranked Cincinnati (victory).
Saturday night's 80-75 win over a physical, scrappy Marquette squad guaranteed a winning record over the first nine conference games. A trip to conference undefeated and No. 4 ranked Pittsburgh awaits, but that contest now resembles house money after the ground work Notre Dame has laid; largely without key cog Carleton Scott in the mix, en route to a 5-3 Big East record and sure-to-rise No. 16 national ranking.
"It's the only undefeated team (remaining in the Big East) but we have to try to get some rest," Brey said of the team's Saturday/Monday turnaround concluding in Pittsburgh. "We're going to leave at 2 PM (Sunday)…we've had success against this team in a neutral site the last time we played them," he noted of a Big East quarterfinals win over the Panthers last March.
"We have nothing to lose because of what happened tonight. I wanted to get this one because we can go into (the Peterson Events Center) really loose and going for it."
But like every matchup with swingman-rich Marquette, Saturday's crucial fifth league victory would not come easily.
The hotly contested matchup featured a first half in which the Irish entered the free throw bonus with 7:54 remaining – normally a pre-cursor to a comfortable halftime lead. But Brey's normally reliable sextet of foul shooters responded with consecutive misses of front end one-and-one opportunities; an ensuing split by Scott Martin on foul No. 9; and back-to-back misses in a double bonus situation as Marquette extended its four-point lead to 11 in the interim, eventually taking a 45-36 advantage into the break.
Marquette struck first to open the second stanza as well when former Junior College Player of the Year Jae Crowder buried his third three-point field goal in as many attempts to extend the Golden Eagles lead to 12, 48-36 with more than 19 minutes remaining.
From there the now infamous Joyce Center magic kicked in as Notre Dame scored 26 of the game's next 35 points, eventually taking a three-point lead on a Ben Hansbrough buzzer-beater from the corner, then extending to what seemed like a commanding five-point edge courtesy a Hansbrough blow-by and dunk near the 9-minute mark.
The Irish built on that 62-57 edge for the next seven minutes chiefly at the charity stripe where Brey's gang knocked down 19 of 22 second half free throws to secure the victory, much to the dismay of visiting head coach Buzz Williams.
"Notre Dame's a really good team; Mike Brey's one of the best human beings in our profession," began Williams in the post-game press conference before adding. "I thought we played really well in the first half, but it's impossible to overcome, regardless of locale, 22 free throw attempts in the second half, which was their same number of field goal attempts."
And therein lies the rub for Notre Dame's four remaining home opponents and conversely, the Irish in six forthcoming road contests: the Irish are the aggressor in South Bend and revert to spectator status away from the comforts of home.
"Our fans gave us a great energy lift when we made the run in the second half to feel like we could do it here," Brey said. "But we (know) we can do it here."
That lift was provided courtesy of future All Big East guard Ben Hansbrough, the Irish senior that's come into his own in his final season of eligibility.
"I think he's one of the best players in the country," Williams said of the Irish heartbeat. "He plays with a high motor, I think he's extremely competitive, moves without the ball as well as anyone in the country, and his shot is part of the pass. So when he's coming off the screen, it's all one motion. It's not like he's going to catch it, then square up; it's not like you and me playing."
Hansbrough finished with a career-best 28 points in 39 minutes. He added five rebounds and six assists without committing a turnover and scored the game's five most decisive points: his aforementioned three-point buzzer beater and a vicious right-handed dunk on a left-side drive to extend the host's advantage to five, firing up the partisan home crowd that had lacked a reason to cheer over the contest's first 25 minutes.
"The crowd was great tonight," Hansbrough said. "I felt the whole atmosphere was great tonight. We got going and they gave us a huge boost. Coach Brey calls them the sixth man, and they gave us a huge boost of energy. When the crowd is going like that it is very fun to play."
It wasn't as fun for Williams – a noted quality bench coach who appeared to micromanage the evening's contest as the visitor's lead slipped away in the first part of the second stanza.
"They shot 22 balls and they made 11. In the middle of all of that they got 8 offensive rebounds. In 20 minutes to shoot 22 free throws…that's an exorbitant number."
"If my opinion mattered I'd answer (the question)," Williams replied when asked if he disagreed with the officiating in the second half. "And part of it is I have four children that I have to pay for their college."
Bench brillianceIn addition to shoddy officiating (for both sides), Notre Dame took control of the contest with a switch from unsuccessful man defense to a 2-3 zone – one that stymied Marquette's basket attacks and forced the Golden Eagles to attack from the perimeter for the final 17 minutes.
"We really don't have any answers in man-to-man, so let's try to change their rhythm a little bit," said Brey of the unorthodox thought process of combating a hot three-point shooting team with a 2-3 zone. "Their shots came up but in a little different rhythm. All of a sudden, it's a little different shooting when the game pressure comes on you. Overall, I thought we did a good job knowing who the three shooters were."
The Irish also held their own as a zone rebounding group, finishing with a 32-25 edge on the glass and limiting the visitors to eight points in the paint in the second stanza.
"We had more paint touches in the second half than we did in the first," noted Williams when pressed regarding the success of the Irish zone. "I thought (the zone) geared us down…it was that the shots we were getting on the inside that we didn't finish."
Freshman guard Eric Atkins augmented Hansbrough's career night with 12 points off the bench on a 4-5 first half shooting effort. He committed just one turnover in 22 minutes before ceding the final stages to the team's senior leaders.
"I though Eric was great," Brey said. "It was a tale of two halves, though. Eric was fabulous in the first half because we were dying to find something. He scored some shots for us and kept us believing we could win…in the second half it became the old guys. We were ‘putting the band back together,'" he joked. "The old guys had to win it in the second half."
Senior Carleton Scott added a double-double, 11 points and 10 rebounds in his second game back from a New Year's Day hamstring injury. Classmate Scott Martin added 10 on eight free throws over 33 minutes and Tyrone Nash knocked down 13 points, seven from the charity stripe.
Following Monday's nationally televised matchup vs. No. 4 Pittsburgh, the Top 15 Irish enter the purportedly easier slate of their 2011 conference schedule: road games vs. DePaul, West Virginia, South Florida, Providence and UConn await as do home tilts with Rutgers, No. 19 Louisville, Seton Hall, and No. 7 Villanova.
Monday's game at No. 4 Pittsburgh will tip-off at 7 PM on ESPN. The Panthers are 7-0 in conference play and have won 20 consecutive home games while the Irish are losers in 15 of their last 20 Big East contests outside South Bend.