That suffocating defense and a stunning seven successful three-point shots in their first 11 attempts propelled #10 seed Florida State over #2 seed Notre Dame, 71-57 in the Tournament's final Round of 32 contest.
Notre Dame boasted the nation's third most efficient offense over the course of the season but was no match for the Seminoles No. 1 ranked defense – a stifling unit that held 2010-11 foes to 36.2 percent from the floor, the best team defensive effort in the last 10 seasons of NCAA play.
An offense buoyed for the bulk of the season by consistent rhythm, crisp ball movement, the ability to knock down the open shot, and a decisive edge at the foul line, enjoyed none of the above in a frustrating performance Sunday night.
A scuffling Ben Hansbrough hit just one of his first five shots and the Irish connected on a crushing 1 of 10 long range offerings during an ugly 23-point first half. Hansbrough and sharpshooter Tim Abromaitis bounced a combined six of their first seven long deep balls off the unforgiving iron with the Irish hitting just 9 of 29 total shots in the first 20 minutes.
Florida State missed two handfuls of short-range offerings in the first 20 minutes as well but was uncharacteristically dynamic from long range, finishing 7 of 12 in the first half en route to a 34-23 lead at the break. That advantage was built on the strength of a 16-2 run that turned a 9-7 Irish lead to a 23-11 FSU advantage.
More of the sameThe Seminoles opened the second stanza with a 9-3 run in the first three minutes, a span that included a debilitating fourth foul on a Florida State bucket vs. senior forward Carleton Scott. Scott and backup center Jack Cooley both committed three fouls in the first half with one of Scott's the result of a double technical (elbowing) between him and FSU's future first-round draft pick, Chris Singleton.
The FSU lead ballooned to 20 points at the 14:54 mark before Hansbrough hit Abromaitis for a layup to stop the bleeding. But the damage was done as the confident, aggressive Seminoles had already scored 13 of the second half's first 17 points.
The panicked, worn Irish found no rhythm during the game's competitive phase, enduring a role reversal in the first 29 minutes. Notre Dame committed as many turnovers (seven) as assists earned in that span while the Seminoles assisted on 10 of their first 19 buckets. Five different Seminoles connected on FSU's first eight three-point buckets while the Irish played through the first 32 minutes hitting just 3 of 20 attempts from long range.
Facing a 23-point deficit, the Irish cut the streaking Seminoles lead to 17 with a 6-0 run, but freshman Eric Atkins missed a pair of free throws and Scott missed an open three-point shot, points the exasperated Irish desperately needed as the clock dipped below the 10:00 mark.
Notre Dame kept chipping away thanks to a Hansbrough three-pointer and ensuing technical foul on Seminoles sophomore Michael Snaer. Abromaitis' subsequent free throws cut the deficit to 12, 52-40 with 8:37 remaining.
The Irish, stymied with just 29 points in the game's first 27 minutes, responded with 13 in a 5:00 span, due largely to a surprisingly effective pressure defense, to place the outcome in relative doubt.
A timeout by head coach Leonard Hamilton and then two free throws by Florida State guard Derwin Kitchen helped the Seminoles regain much-needed momentum, and the Seminoles maintained at least a 12-point edge until the final minute.
Dangerous defensivelyThough it will go down as an upset in both seed and according to the contest's point spread (the Irish were favored by 5), it was clear which team was better suited to advance to and beyond the Sweet 16, as the Seminoles enjoyed a supreme athletic advantage among its incredibly deep 11-man rotation.
Imposing 6'10" forward Bernard James was the game MVP, making his presence felt with 14 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. James, a 26-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran, owned the paint vs. the Irish front line tandem of Scott and graduating senior Tyrone Nash, limiting the duo to eight points with Scott missing 8 of 9 shots, the majority on jumpers. Scott finished with a game-high 11 rebounds.
Michael Snaer added 13 points on 5 of 8 shooting (3-4 from deep) for the victors while both Okaro White and the aforementioned Kitchen scored 10.
Abromaitis led the deflated Irish with 21 points and seven rebounds but was uncharacteristically cold, missing his first six three-point shots before hitting a triple at the 6:10 mark of the second half. The senior, who will return to South Bend with classmates Scott Martin and Carleton Scott next season, finished 3 of 9 from long range.
Hansbrough finished with 18 points before fouling out with less than three minutes remaining. The Big East Player of the Year connected on 5 of 13 shots including 4 of 10 from beyond the arc.
Freshman point guard Eric Atkins performed capably off the bench, finishing with seven points, five rebounds, and three assists. Notre Dame's fifth starter, transfer Scott Martin, did not score on four field goal attempts. Martin injured his back defending an early Seminoles drive to the bucket.
The Irish hit just 19 of their 60 field goal attempts, knocking down a mere 7 of 30 from beyond the arc. Florida State shot just under 45 percent from the floor including a 9-19 finish on three-point shots.
The tenth-seeded Seminoles advanced to a Sweet 16 matchup next Friday with No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth in San Antonio. The Rams took part in the NCAA's inaugural "First Four" last Wednesday, prevailing over USC to earn a Round of 64 matchup with Big East heavy Georgetown. A VCU blowout over the Hoyas was followed by an 18-point victory over a stunned Purdue squad last night prior to FSU's win over the Irish.
Notre Dame finished its season a sterling 27-7, the win total marking the highest in 103 years at the program. Just six Irish teams have lost fewer than the 2011 squad's seven contests over the last 50 years, none since 1986.
The 14-point defeat was Notre Dame's sixth double-digit loss of the season and fourth in its last four NCAA appearances.
Both Hansbrough and Nash played their final games in an Irish uniform. Nash exits the school enjoying the most victories, 96, for a scholarship player in program history. Hansbrough started 69 of a possible 69 games for the Irish since transferring from Mississippi State following his sophomore season. He starred for two Irish teams that finished 27-14 in conference play.