Notre Dame claimed an unlikely comeback road win in its regular season finale for the second straight season, this time overcoming a five-point deficit and an epic dose of home court momentum to defeat Connecticut, 70-67.
With the win, the Irish moved within a half-game of conference leader Pittsburgh. The Panthers tipped off in a home court Senior Day showdown vs. Villanova as the Irish/Huskies contest concluded.
Trailing 65-60 at the 4:13 mark, senior Tyrone Nash banked home a difficult right-handed shot off the glass, drawing a foul in the process to cut the Huskies advantage to a more manageable 65-63 score.
Dropping back into a 2-3 zone to keep Connecticut all-star Kemba Walker out of the paint, the Irish came up with their first stop in more than five minutes, then answered with a Scott Martin jump shot to knot the score at 65. The visitors scored the next four points before the Huskies could answer, the hosts now trailing 69-67 with less than a minute remaining.
The teams exchanged possessions with Notre Dame's Martin missing a pair at the foul line before Nash earned a split on his trip to the charity stripe, pushing the Irish edge to 70-67 edge with eight seconds remaining.
Completely unstoppable for an extended second half stretch, Walker found a wide open Donnell Beverly in the corner for a potential game-winning three but the senior mishandled the pass and the ensuing scramble ended the contest, giving the Irish their 14th win in 18 league contests.
Unconscionable mistakeWith 8:34 remaining and an eight-point lead, Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey trusted his 5th-year senior and Big East MVP candidate Ben Hansbrough to keep his wits about him and avoid a fifth foul.
Hansbrough had picked up his fourth foul due to a cagey flop on the baseline by Walker, and thus sat down with 12:04 remaining – the Irish in control by eight points.
Four minutes later, Hansbrough returned – the Irish still up eight thanks to a savvy effort by freshman guard Eric Atkins in his stead – but Hansbrough's floor time lasted less than 10 seconds as the still-frustrated senior inexcusably and intentionally slammed his shoulder into defender Shabazz Napier, thereby committing an obvious fifth foul, ending his afternoon with 8:24 remaining in the contest.
"The player of the year in this league; a 23-year-old fifth-year senior, I think he can play smarter than that," Brey said post-game. "He didn't...but boy did his teammates cover for me and him."
Prior to his ridiculous mental error, Hansbrough had scored 21 points on 8-9 shooting in just 27 minutes and in the process appeared poised to secure conference Player of the Year honors during his showcase matchup vs. Walker.
The Kemba Walker show temporarily ensued thereafter as the Huskies reeled off nine straight points in less than three minutes to take a 61-60 lead, one they extended to 65-60 before senior Tyrone Nash stopped the bleeding – and a 13-0 UConn run – scoring on his aforementioned three-point play.
The Irish outscored Connecticut 10-2 to end the contest, a span of 4:13 that began with a much-needed timeout from Brey. Walker, who finished with a game-high 34 points, played the final four minutes with no field goals in four attempts, including an open potential go-ahead three-pointer with less than 10 seconds remaining.
Nash finished as the late-game MVP, scoring six of the team's final 10, assisting on another, and securing the contest's most important rebound following Walker's wayward three-pointer. The Irish senior finished with 13 points including a 7-9 effort from the charity stripe. The win was Nash's 94th in an Irish uniform, breaking the program record by an individual player or class.
Carleton Scott added 13 points and Tim Abromaitis scored 11, including a key driving layup to give the Irish a 67-65 edge late. Freshman point guard Eric Atkins finished with six points and three assists though his greatest contribution came as a floor general with Hansbrough absent for the better part of the final 12 minutes.
Freshmen Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb both scored nine points for the Huskies. Connecticut finished 9-9 in league play and will face a yet-to-be determined opponent in Tuesday's opening round after sinking below the #8 seed (and an opening bye) in defeat. Jim Calhoun's crew will conclude the regular season in either 9th, 10th, or 11th depending on game's played Saturday afternoon and evening.
After an 0-3 start in Big East road games, Notre Dame finished its road conference season at 5-4, just the fourth season in Brey's 11 years at the helm in which the Irish finished above .500 on the road in league play. Today's victory was the 25th for Notre Dame in 30 contests – the team's five losses are the lowest number in a regular season since 1985-86 when the Irish finished 23-5 prior to a first-round NCAA exit.
Six other Irish squads finished with five losses or fewer in regular season action over the last 40 years: 1973 (26-2), 1976 (24-5), 1979 (22-5), 1980 (22-5), 1981 (22-5), and the aforementioned '86 squad.