Trailing 39-23–and it seemed worse–I figured the suddenly tentative Irish wouldn't win, but could still make a game of it vs. an undermanned, inferior Wildcats crew. That would be the post-game story: Did Mike Brey's previously streaking Irish lay down and take a beating in the second half? Or did they cause at least a bit of angst among the host's faithful with a furious or even a methodical rally?
Instead the still-second place Irish won, overcoming a 20-point deficit to take a four-point lead late; then winning by the same margin in overtime despite losing momentum as the Wildcats' clawed back to end regulation.
You can knock them down–and many have–but knocking out Notre Dame for the full 40+ minutes has become a tall task, even for some of the best the Big East has to offer. With the exception of current #7 Big East team Cincinnati, Brey's bunch has already defeated each member of the Big East's standings top half, with one foe from that group remaining: at Big East #4 Georgetown, February 27.
Teams ranked #22, #10, #1, #19, and #15 at the time of the matchup have taken it on the chin vs. the Irish this conference season, who haven't lost anywhere since January 16 at Rutgers. They've won five of seven road games in Big East play including four straight during the program-record tying eight game conference winning streak.
More important, they've forged belief in the ranks – both inside and out.
When redshirt-freshman guard Jerian Grant pulled the trigger on a 23-foot step back three-pointer with just over a minute remaining in regulation, I was nearly certain it would tickle the bottom of the twine. Grant, maybe the most clutch among a quintet of ice cold starters, had missed 11 of 12 shots prior to launching the bomb that extended the Irish lead to 60-56.
There was no reason to take the shot, and less to think it would go in, except the first-year assassin has made season of such gems, earlier this year hitting a similar offering at Louisville to help send that eventual win into overtime, again after struggling mightily from the field. He did the same to West Virginia in Morgantown during the current win streak and to Detroit in South Bend in just his fourth career contest.
And after a half of getting pushed around and out-hustled, Big East MVP candidate (you read that correctly) Jack Cooley came alive, finishing with 18 points and 13 boards, his fourth straight double-double and one that included three heavily contested boards in the final 1:22 and overtime.
Like Grant, freshman Pat Connaughton will be in South Bend for three more years after his sterling debut campaign – unlike Grant, Connaughton is a true freshman, one that drilled a career-best seven three point shots including four in the decisive final seven minutes and overtime combined.
Connaughton's last bucket was the kill shot, a triple with just 0:52 remaining that took Notre Dame's lead to six, and one that came courtesy of a textbook chest pass from captain Scott Martin, who received a sublime drive and dish from a contorting, hanging Eric Atkins just a second earlier, but who also noticed a defender closing fast to his corner position as he drew to shoot.
Martin made the extra pass–the Irish always make the extra pass–and Connaughton hit the dagger from the left wing.
Atkins was again the catalyst, scoring 17 points with 5 assists, just one turnover, and at least four forays to the hole that resulted in Irish baskets after the favor of his initial pass was paid forward by a teammate to a more open option.
There are better basketball teams than Notre Dame, but not many play better basketball.
And for more than a month, the game's final score has silenced the program's decreasing collection of critics.
Brey's "cruel competitors" as he's repeatedly referred to his crew, don't die easily. The kill shots have been almost all Irish in this, the most surprising season of my three-decade viewing lifetime.