The 6-8 sophomore tied the contest at 60 with a three-pointer and then sank two free throws with under two minutes to go to put Notre Dame up for good as they downed the Wildcats 66-63. In front of a sold out Joyce Center crowd, the Irish had to hang on for dear life as Villanova (14-6, 3-4) missed two chances in the final 10 seconds to tie the game up.
The win, which avenges a 102-87 loss to Villanova back on January 17th, moves No. 21 Notre Dame to 17-4 on the season. More importantly, they are now 5-3 in the Big East at the halfway point of conference play. The Irish also love home cooking. They're 15-0 at the Joyce Center in 2006-07 and have won 17 in a row dating back to last year. Notre Dame now goes on the road three times in a row, starting on Tuesday at Syracuse. Tip-off at the Carrier Dome is scheduled for 7 PM and ESPNU will have the television coverage. Some clutch play by Ayres and other bench players saved the day for the Irish.
"They are really good," head coach Mike Brey said of Villanova. "They're the best team that's come into this building. We had a hard time scoring on them. They did a good job defending us. It was growth and a step forward for us because we haven't had to muck one out this. We've had pretty games here scoring 84 points and everybody gets to shoot it and we have 23 assists. Not tonight. It was a wrestling match at times. For us to find a way to win it and have different guys make plays is certainly something to build on. I'll take 5-3 halfway through."
It wasn't looking good in the second half. Villanova was up 55-48 with 7:12 remaining and Wildcats point guard Scottie Reynolds was taking over the contest. The freshman finished the game with 19 points and eight assists and kept making play after play when called upon. Also, the Irish sat Carter down at this point and the senior guard didn't play the rest of the contest. He struggled on the day, shooting 3-for-11, good for 14 points but turned the ball over four times.
Notre Dame showed it wanted to stay perfect at home. The Irish went on a 9-0 run to take a 57-55 advantage after Colin Falls connected on all his free throws after being fouled on a three-point attempt. Villanova responded with their own 5-0 run and took a 60-57 lead when Shane Clark drained a basket from behind the arc. It set up the frantic final two minutes.
With Kurz, who totaled his eighth double-double of the year with 10 points and 10 rebounds, on the bench with an injury, it set up the late game heroics from an unlikely source. After a Reynolds turnover, Notre Dame point guard Tory Jackson drove the lane and kicked it out to Ayres. Shooting just 26 percent from long distance range this season, the sophomore forward nailed a three-pointer to tie the contest up at 60. A defensive stop allowed Ayres to hurt the Wildcats once again. He was fouled on another three-point shot with 1:39 to go. Ayres hit two of three to give the Irish a two-point lead.
"I'm so proud of him," Brey said. "Here's a guy who didn't play against St. John's and lost his roommate (Kyle McAlarney) on Monday. It was a tough week for Ryan Ayres. He's really shot it well in practice. He hasn't shot it that well in games. To knock that one down and knock the free throws down, certainly it was huge. That could be a real coming out party for him. We've been waiting for him to do something like that."
Reynolds once again got careless with the ball. He lost control of it and dove to the floor, along with the Irish's Luke Harangody. The burly Notre Dame forward got the ball and passed it to Falls, who converted on the other end for a basket and increased the lead to 64-60. The senior guard carried the Irish offensively on Saturday, scoring 23 points on 6-of-11 shooting. It's the most points he's scored since December 21st in a victory over Army, where he totaled 24.
After Falls converted two more free throws for a 66-60 lead with 37 seconds left, Villanova had one more push. The Wildcats cut it to 66-63 on two free throws by Dante Cunningham. A turnover by Notre Dame's Zach Hillesland gave them another shot but Reggie Redding and Curtis Sumpter both missed tying three-point attempts. Sumpter, the Big East's third leading scorer, is battling a bone bruise in his leg and shot just 3-for-13 in 26 minutes of action. Villanova head Jay Wright is not taken aback by the success of the Irish this season.
"I don't think it was surprising for any coaches in the league or anyone who played them last year in those close games," Wright said. "We came out here last year saying, ‘You know, we don't want to play them again and they're probably going to get it going next game.' We thought they were going to be good this year and they're a really good team."
Clark 2-6, 0-0 5; Cunningham 4-7, 3-6 11; Sheridan 1-4, 0-0 2; Reynolds 5-14, 8-9 19; Nardi 4-11, 0-0 11; Benn 0-0, 0-0 0; Redding 1-5, 1-3 4; Sumpter 3-13, 5-6 11; Totals: 20-60 (33 percent), 17-24 63.
NOTRE DAME 66
Kurz 4-6, 2-4 10; Harangody 1-6, 2-2 4; Jackson 0-5, 4-4 4; Falls 6-11, 8-9 23; Carter 3-11, 7-8 14; Peoples 0-1, 0-0 0; Hillesland 1-4, 4-7 6; Zeller 0-0, 0-0 0; Ayres 1-2, 2-3 5; Totals: 16-46 (34 percent), 29-37 66.