What looked like a cakewalk against a disinterested team for the better part of 35 minutes turned into a historic Big East basketball contest.
Providence's Marshon Brooks scored a conference-record 52 points but it became a sensational statistical footnote with no tangible damage to Notre Dame as the Irish survived a furious Friar comeback to win, 94-93, at the Dunkin Donuts Center.
The victory lifted Mike Brey's team to 11-4 in the Big East, 22-5 overall, and puts it in position to get a double-bye in the Big East Tournament and a coveted spot in the Chicago pod of the NCAA get-together. (Though Wisconsin 's last-minute buzzer-beating victory at Michigan didn't help.)
Brooks, a 6-5 senior guard, entered as the Big East's leading scorer at 25.6 points per game. He put up 43 in a Providence near-miss at Georgetown on Feb. 5 and generally was the only reason anybody shows up at the Dunk to watch a team that either has no interest or aptitude in playing defense.
The Ocean State fans – quiet in the first-half, rollicking in the second – walked out seemingly with their money's worth after Brooks hit an other-worldly 20-of-28 field goal attempts (including 6-of-10 from three) to trim a Providence 16-point second-half deficit to one possession four times in the final minute.
Earlier, you may have marveled at Notre Dame's offensive efficiency or been tempted to turn the channel. It looked like a mismatch.
"We talked about getting a great shot every possession," Brey said. "I think we did that early, and it started with low post touches.
"This group can really score the ball and they know to play."
Keno Davis ' team came in allowing an unconscionable 78.4 points per game in Big East play. At their worst, the Friars deserve their 3-12 conference, 14-14 overall record. They will likely miss the post-season all together and Davis has the warmest seat of all coaches in the country's toughest circuit. It is difficult to support a program that gives the impression of limited effort, and defense is generally the defining characteristic of a squad's work ethic.
But Davis has also developed a player who has NBA skills in Brooks and sophomore Vincent Council (12 points) also next-level potential.
Notre Dame's experience ultimately won out. Irish seniors Hansbrough (32) and Tim Abromaitis (28) combined for 60 points on 21-for-29 shooting. They weren't going to turn it over in the final minute.
Ty Nash had a solid 13-point, 8-rebound, 8-assist effort. Scott Martin had 10 points and five rebounds. Perhaps more troubling than the Brooks explosion of points was that glue guy Carleton Scott was just 2-for-10 from the field and limped to the bench in the final minute with what looked like an ankle injury.
Hansbrough and Abromaitis couldn't miss in the first-half, nailing 13-of-15, as the Irish jumped out to a 48-38 advantage.
"We got great looks and it started with good low post passes to flatten the D," Brey explained simply.
It was still a comfortable 83-72 with five minutes to play before Notre Dame forgot a very basic premise of defense – stop the ball. Brooks penetrated and scored at will; 15 of the team's final 18 over a 3:20 stretch. His 52 points were the most vs. a Notre Dame team in program history breaking the old mark of 45 set by Michigan State's Julius McCoy in 1955.
The Irish hadn't allowed a 40-point effort by an opponent in nearly 25 years: Danny Manning netted 40 for Kansas in 1987.
If it were not for the senior poise of Hansbrough and Abromaitis – and the nice sight of frosh Atkins hitting his free throws – it would have been a long charter flight home.
But, instead, Notre Dame deserves sell-outs for its next two home games – Saturday versus Seton Hall and then a Big Monday date with Villanova. Victories in both of those games will clinch the Big East Tournament double-bye.
At 22-5 overall, Brey has the opportunity to exceed the career-best 24 regular season wins Digger Phelps had in 1973-74 campaign. If you really want to dream large, the Irish have a shot to exceed 30+ wins for the first time 1908-09 (33-7) when the Buffalo Germans and the Mobile YMCA were hot rivals.
Silliness aside, Notre Dame has proven it can win under all kinds of difficult circumstances in 2010-11, including now in the face of a record-breaking offensive performance.
Note: Alan Tieuli is the Editor-in-Chief of Irish Eyes Magazine