With its stunning win last night in Pittsburgh, Notre Dame moved to 9-5 on the conference season, one game out of first-place with four teams either a full or half-game ahead. And for the next five days, Mike Brey's Irish can finally relax, sit back, and watch the dominoes fall around them.
Before the Irish host Cincinnati (7-6) at 2 p.m. (ET) at the Purcell Pavilion Sunday, current conference co-leader Marquette (9-3) will play twice, both on the road. Two other teams tied with the Golden Eagles atop the standings, Georgetown and Syracuse, will likewise play twice, including against each other. Syracuse must host red-hot Providence as well.
Only Louisville (9-4) has a relatively easy week among the contenders, hosting Seton Hall on Saturday, a game from which they'll likely emerge a full win ahead of Brey and the resurgent Irish.
"It seems like we've been on the road awhile," said Brey following Monday night's comeback win. "To end this road trip with a win against these guys, here, its great. We need some rest right now. We've been on a pretty hard stretch. I'm glad we don't play until Sunday."
The break won't only allow his eight-man rotation to get its sea legs back, but more important, offers a chance to mentally recharge after a 16-day stretch that included six games and seven additional overtimes.
Notre Dame emerged from it with four wins and two losses. They've won 6 of 8 without sixth-year senior captain Scott Martin in the lineup and following a troubling 3-3 start.
"I truly challenged our guys…the two games we lost we weren't physical on the front line," said Brey of defeats vs. Georgetown and Providence. "In the six we won, we were very physical. (Monday night), everybody rebounded."
Literally and figuratively. The Irish not only held a decisive advantage on the glass (36-22, and 10-3 off the offensive boards), but they were able to rebound from a 19-3 deficit. Notre Dame regularly limited Pittsburgh to one shot (always a plus vs. a team that can't shoot), and methodically chipped away at the aforementioned early lead that surely seemed comical flashing across TV screens nationwide.
The rally was doubtless jump-started by a technical foul against the visiting head coach.
"I didn't say much because a raving lunatic for most of that timeout after that technical," said Brey of any advice given to his troops. "But I think they talked to themselves. One thing I kept telling them, 'We are defending pretty well, just hang on in there and we're only giving them one shot.'
"So we knew we were going to get a spurt (at some point). For us to be down three at half, are you kidding me? After where we were? That's a moral victory going into halftime."
The comeback began when struggling shooter Pat Connaughton drained back-to-back three-point shots, the initial steps up a 19-3 insurmountable mountain to a more manageable 19-9 deficit.
Connaughton had missed 23 of his previous 26 shots from long range prior to his two downtown strikes occurring just 37 seconds apart.
"I was just trying to keep our guys fired up, because that felt like we tied it, quite frankly," said Brey of the immediate timeout called by Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon following the treys. "The climate changed in the building, the vibe, our body language, and we were able to get a few things offensively that kind of set the tone for us in the second half to have some confidence."
The Irish dominated in the second stanza, outscoring the Panthers 32-20 after ending the half on a 16-3 run. Much of the damage was done courtesy the vastly improved play of Brey's backcourt.
"In the second half they were fabulous controlling the tempo and in the last seven minutes we were burning and getting great stuff and controlling the clock," said Brey of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant.
The pair combined for 23 points and eight assists following Brey's technical, accounting for (bucket or assist) all but seven of the team's 48 points in the 48-21 run that followed Tray Woodall's free throws courtesy Brey's outburst.
"I don't know, how much is it premeditated? I thought on some of our drives, we were getting bumped a little bit," Brey said of his ire. "Sometimes, that does change the vibe."
In this case, it put his Irish back in the Big East race.