The Senior Night victory pulled Notre Dame to within a half-game of Big East leader Pittsburgh over whom the Irish hold the tiebreaker should the programs finished deadlocked at week's end.
The Irish jumped out to a 14-4 lead on the strength of four early three-point buckets, two by senior Tim Abromaitis before the visiting Wildcats burned their first, necessary timeout. Notre Dame managed to double up the struggling guests, 30-15 and 38-19 as the half progressed before finally enter the break with a commanding 47-27 advantage.
"To say we were ready to play would be an understatement," offered head coach Mike Brey post game. "Our defense allowed them to not get confident driving the basketball. Our offensive efficiency is part of our defense, and our offensive efficiency was off the charts tonight. It was a great win for us. We shot it well, but we also got good shots. We moved the ball and found open people."
That was an understatement. The sharp-shooting Irish knocked down 11 of 19 looks from beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes, assisting on 12 of their 16 first half buckets including six by senior Ben Hansbrough, who also drew eight fouls from Wildcat defenders over the course of the evening.
Abromaitis and Hansbrough outscored the visitors in the first half, 29-27 and maintained a scoring advantage vs. the Villanova team through the 3:23 mark of the second half (60 combined points vs. 58 for the visitors as a unit).
Notre Dame finished the contest hitting 20 of 32 shots from downtown, the former a program record eclipsing the old mark of 19 set vs. South Dakota in December 2008.
"Yeah I was telling (Abromaitis) after the game, 'Did you and I just hit 16 threes combined?" Hansbrough admitted. "Yeah, I guess that's a decent shooting night. I think that was just part of our mental preparation and just our guys getting in the gym and working on their shots by themselves. We seized the opportunities when they were there."
The second stanza featured the same level of decisiveness as the first with the Irish clamping down on the shell-shocked ‘Cats, often holding a comfortable 25-30 point advantage.
Abromaitis and Hansbrough finished with 30 points apiece, marking the second time in six seasons that Irish teammates hit for 30 more in the same contest (Chris Quinn, 34, and Colin Falls, 32, turned the trick in a 102-91 win vs. Seton Hall in February 2006).
Abromaitis tied a team mark with nine three-point buckets (9-13) while Hansbrough nailed 7 of 10 long range offerings. The 5th-year senior also dished out 10 assists while converting each of his seven free throw attempts.
Fellow senior Tyrone Nash, one of three honored for his last home appearance prior to the contest, finished with a double-double, 11 points and 11 rebounds in 32 minutes of action. Nash, the lone true scholarship senior on the squad, has been part of 93 wins in his Irish career, tying the all-time record set by Luke Harangody, Tory Jackson, and Jonathan Peoples last season.
"When I'm at home in bed, lights out, music playing, I just look back at all the years and the hard work you put into this and the success you get out of it," Nash noted post-game. "Then you get emotional. Nobody will be around for that, just me and my own personal time."
Nash's classmate, walk-on Tom Kopko, brought the house down with a full-court, full-speed, full-contact driving layup to close the contest and his Irish career with a bucket that served as a microcosm of the contest…one side just wanted it more. The remaining 9,000-strong in attendance roared; then serenaded the 24-5 Irish with a final "We Are… ND" chant for 2011.
With the win, the Irish finished undefeated at home (16-0) for the third time in five seasons and just the fifth in the history of the ACC/Joyce Center/Purcell Pavilion.
Villanova fell to 21-9 overall and 9-8 in Big East play. The Wildcats, however, hold the fate of tonight's victors in their hands, finishing the regular season at conference-leader Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Notre Dame travels to Storrs, Connecticut, Saturday to take on the Huskies. Notre Dame has never won at Gampel Pavilion (0-4) and is just 1-10 all-time at Connecticut, winning at the Hartford Civic Center in January 2000.
A loss by Pittsburgh Wednesday at South Florida or Saturday vs. Villanova, coupled with an Irish win over Connecticut would give Notre Dame its first Big East regular season crown in the program's 15 seasons of conference affiliation. The Irish defeated the Panthers 56-51 in late January – the game serving as a decisive tiebreaker should the two finished knotted at 14 league victories.
"I think we are aware of that," Abromaitis said of the possible title scenario. "It's something that would be great, if Pitt could help us out with, but I think we are just happy with how we are playing right now. Hopefully we can keep that momentum going into the post-season."
Note: Irish Eyes will have more on tonight's victory in its Player Review column, Tuesday.