"We weren't humiliated," said senior guard Colin Falls after Notre Dame's 102-87 loss to Villanova before a sold-out crowd of 6,500 at The Pavilion. "We played better than we did at Georgetown."
True, 20th ranked Notre Dame did compete harder in this steamy gym off the Blue Route in the Philadelphia suburbs. While they didn't have a shot in the 66-48 loss at Georgetown on January 6, the Irish climbed within seven with 5:52 remaining on this night.
But ultimately Notre Dame had absolutely no answer for freshman point guard Scottie Reynolds (career-high 27 points), his senior back-court mate Mike Nardi (18 points, seven assists) or the powerful tandem of Curtis Sumpter (21 points, six rebounds) and Dante Cunningham (19 points, three steals).
And the Irish probably will get a little more ticked at their effort when they look at the video and digest the statistics. Villanova had not scored more than 65 points in its previous four Big East contests. Jay Wright's team had been the Mild cats at The Pavilion earlier in the year, losing to Drexel and DePaul. On this night they got well, shooting an ungodly 57-percent from the field (34-for-60). It scored 50 points (50/52) in both halves.
"Last week I was coaching 18-to-23 year-olds who couldn't score a basket," said Wright. "Tonight we came home and made everything."
And because of that, the Big East Conference standings got a bit more jumbled. Notre Dame dropped to 3-2 in the circuit (two games behind league-leading, unbeaten Pittsburgh), a still-impressive 15-3 overall. Villanova rebounded to 2-3, 12-5 winning a game truthfully that was much more important to the hosts.
Maybe that is why the Notre Dame traveling party was able to find some consolation after the loss.
"Maybe we bring out the best in people (on the road)," said head coach Mike Brey. "I don't think we played that bad. They just played really well."
How well? It was the most points Notre Dame has surrendered in a regulation game since November 26, 1998, when it lost to Duke, 111-82, in the first round of the Great Alaskan Shootout. The Irish plummeted to 15th in the Big East in team scoring defense at 72.8.
"But I won't walk out of here hanging my head," said junior forward Rob Kurz, who had a painful 26-minute homecoming to his native county, sustaining a nasty gash under his right eye. "We took everything they had and still found ourselves in the game down the stretch. We'll look forward to seeing them at our place in a couple of weeks (January 27 in South Bend)."
Be careful what you wish for. Reynolds is a fearless point guard, Nardi is playing with senior aplomb, and Notre Dame has match-up problems up front with the length and quickness of Sumpter, Cunningham and Will Sheridan.
But the Irish have two winnable contests – home versus South Florida on Saturday, at St. John's next Tuesday – where it can regain its offensive and defensive rhythm. It is a team that is still in transition dealing with the suspension of starting point guard Kyle McAlarney.
"We are still learning," said Brey. "Without the other guy we had at point guard, we need Carter and Kurz to be more catch-and-shoot type of players."
Notre Dame did play a more-than-capable offensive game. South Jersey's Russell Carter, the recipient of a feature story in Wednesday's Philadelphia Inquirer, scored a team-high 26 points, thrilling his dad, mom and younger brother seated behind the Irish bench. Falls (17), Luke Harangody (13) and Kurz (11) joined him in double figures.
But the Irish – particularly freshmen point guards Tory Jackson and Jonathan Peoples – played tentative early and allowed Villanova to score first, never trail, and build a double-digit lead before the second media time-out.
Notre Dame was outscored 19-4 in the first six minutes at Georgetown, 16-6 in this one. The Irish have not led on the road in 80 minutes of Big East play this season.
"Man, this league is tough," said Jackson, a Michigan prep star who had limited knowledge of Big East road venues. "We have to make it a priority to be confident right out of the gate and be able to hit people hard."
It was Jackson that was drilled early in this one. He was a step slow getting into defensive position in the game's second minute and paid for it by losing a piece of his lower lip.
"That won't happen again," said Jackson. "I'll be ready for the speed of the game."
Jackson, on the stat sheet, performed admirably, with nine points, a career-high eight assists and just three turnovers in 29 minutes. But Reynolds was clearly more confident and was a difference-maker.
His freshman understudy, Jonathan Peoples, did not score in 14 minutes. Zach Hillesland, after nearly registering a triple-double versus Seton Hall on Sunday, had as many fouls (four) as points and rebounds combined in 16 minutes.
"When DePaul won in here," Brey said, "they got off to a good start and changed the climate of the building. Now we have one less shot-maker on the floor and I have to remember (our point guards) are freshmen and we need to stay patient with them."
So it's a mulligan for the Irish on this one, and all should be well again when league bottom-feeder South Florida visits Sunday. And we won't mention again until next Tuesday that Notre Dame is the only team in the conference not to win a road game this season.