Notre Dame missed six of its first 15 free throw attempts in the half to keep the visitors within reach before the now-expected heroics of Ben Hansbrough – this time an 11 for 12 effort from the foul line in the final five minutes – put the visitors down for good.
But prior to senior's free throw line parade, it was the improved Martin's court savvy and interior defense of Carleton Scott that kick-started an Irish rally. Martin scored 14 second half points while Scott corralled 11 rebounds (eight in the decisive second stanza) and contributed timely weak side defense at the rim, blocking three Rutgers offerings on what appeared to be certain buckets.
The Scarlet Knights, winners in just 30 of their last 33 road games, wouldn't fold cutting an eight-point Irish advantage to two, 51-49, with just under 11 minutes remaining. Hansbrough then bulled for a contested bucket in the lane and Martin jolted a previously disinterested Super Bowl pre-party crowd from its slumber, converting a difficult shot vs. two defenders at the front of the rim to extend the host's lead back to seven, 58-51.
An ensuing Hansbrough finish at the hoop gave Notre Dame its largest lead since midway through the first half, 60-51. Back-to-back blocked shots by Scott and classmate Tim Abromaitis were followed by a vicious offensive rebound effort by Hansbrough whose resulting free throws afforded the Irish what appeared to be a comfortable 11-point lead at the 5:27 mark.
As advertised by Notre Dame coach Mike Brey prior to the contest, this focused group of Scarlet Knights wouldn't quit, as first-year head coach Mike Rice's squad again trimmed the Irish lead to five, knocking down pair of three point buckets in a 59-second span.
"I haven't been happier about a win (this year); that's a great league win for us," noted Brey post-game. "You can get into what ‘should happen' because we're 7-3 and they're 3-8, but they're tough kids, that's a group that beat us last year…it was a hard game for us and we had to figure out how to get out of there.
"I think that's good for our group because we're going to be in a lot of those the rest of the way."
Alligator bloodThe Scarlet Knights ability to hang around and thrive following brief Irish rallies defined Sunday's contest.
A Carleton Scott tip-dunk of his own miss, and two free throws by Hansbrough briefly kept the visitors at bay before Nash was stripped by Rutgers forward Jonathan Mitchell in the backcourt and then exacerbated his error with a foul at the rim – his fifth – as Mitchell's converted lay-up cut the Irish advantage back to five, 68-63 at the 2:26 mark.
A long Notre Dame possession came up empty and Dane Miller's tip-in at the other end cut the Irish lead to three with less than 1:45 remaining.
Martin hit two fouls shots and the Irish defense held off a frantic Rutgers possession to gain control with just over one minute remaining, but the Scarlet Knights recorded their ninth steal of the contest – a Mike Poole strip of Hansbrough – to again draw within one possession, 70-67.
After a Hansbrough pass was tipped out of bounds, Brey called timeout with just six seconds showing on the shot clock and 29.9 remaining in the contest. The hosts then received a home court gift when Rutgers guard James Beattie was called for holding Hansbrough on the senior's drive across the lane; the Irish senior hit both foul shots to offer ND breathing room at 72-67.
"Notre Dame dropped their heads (on penetration) and it seemed that whenever they dropped their heads, they got a foul called," noted Rice post-game.
Hansbrough then effectively sealed the contest, chasing a long three-point miss by Miller and knocking down another pair at the charity stripe for a 74-67 advantage with just 18 seconds remaining.
"There's absolutely no question he's a (Big East) Player of the Year candidate," Brey said of Hansbrough. "He's a national player of the year candidate if you're a top 10 team," (as the Irish are).
Hansbrough led all scorers with 25 points, his third outing in excess of 20 points in the team's current five-game winning streak and ninth such performance on the season.
The Irish victory was secured by its quintet of seniors as Martin, Nash, Abromaitis and Scott augmented Hansbrough's effort with 38 of the team's 39 second-half points.
"It was old guy's night," Brey said of a second half rotation that included only one bench member (Eric Atkins). "It was their night to win it or lose it. As a matter of fact, it's probably going to be old guy's night a lot"
Scott's 12 point/11-rebound effort was his second double-double since returning from a hamstring injury, a homecoming that's resulted in a five-game Irish winning streak. Classmate Tim Abromaitis added 10 points and eight boards.
The Irish shot just four free throws in the first 20 minutes but enjoyed a continuous parade to the foul line in the second stanza, converting 23 of 30 free throws including 19 of their final 23 attempts.
Jonathan Mitchell led the visitors with 24 points on a 9-14 shooting effort while sophomore Dane Miller added 11.
Notre Dame improved to 19-4 with the victory and stands alone at second-place in the conference at 8-3. A date with 7-3 and certain Top 12 foe Louisville waits Wednesday night in South Bend.