"Gee, you guys are young," the Irish captain said with a smile. "That's what I said to them, and they all started laughing. They played their hardest, they played their butts off, and we came away victorious."
With co-captain Rob Kurz on the bench with an injury, and the team's leading scorer Russell Carter struggling and sitting a couple chairs down from Kurz, the youngsters on the court each played a part in No. 21 Notre Dame's 66-63 victory over Villanova, Sunday afternoon at the Joyce Center.
The Irish (17-4, 5-3 in the Big East) came into the game with their backs against the wall, looking at losing three of their last four games, and enduring the loss of point guard Kyle McAlarney for the season, for whom teammates wrote the No. 23 on their sneakers. Like this same Villanova (14-6, 3-4) team responded in a similar situation against Notre Dame 10 days ago when they were desperate for a win, Falls and company proved resilient and got a game the Irish really needed.
The leaders for Notre Dame were familiar names. Falls had a game-high 23 points. Kurz registered his eighth double-double of the season, 10 points and a game high 10 rebounds, before limping off the floor with 2:38 to go and the Irish down 60-57. Carter added 14 points, but struggled to 3-of-11 from the floor and didn't play the last seven minutes.
Those guys did their part, but it was the young guys down the stretch.
Jackson drove the lane and found Ayers on the left wing, and the guy who didn't see a minute of playing time in the previous game against St. John's, stepped up and drained the game-tying jumper.
"It was a situation where Tory was coming off a ball screen from Luke, and he was able to get in the lane and find me," Ayers said. "My guy helped because Tory got in the lane, and I was able to knock it down. It was a great look."
After Villanova failed to convert, Jackson and the offense moved the ball well. Falls made the extra pass to Ayers, and he was fouled on a 3-point attempt. He drained two-of-three and the Irish led 62-60 with 1:39 remaining.
"It just felt really good to be out there at crunch time and pull out a win and help my team," Ayers said.
Trapping freshman point guard Scottie Reynolds, who carved the Irish up in the second half and finished with 19 points and eight assists, Harangody and Jackson forced a turnover. Harangody dove on the floor, the ball squirted to Falls who took it to the glass and the Irish led by two possessions and only 1:09 to play.
"For Harangody, he didn't score the ball and he missed some tough ones around the basket, but getting that thing loose, that was the play of the game where Colin came up with it," Irish coach Mike Brey explained. "Him diving on the floor right there and making a hustle play, probably was the key play to break it open. Ayers certainly coming in and doing some stuff in a situation like that. Jackson's been doing that."
Speaking of Jackson, he turned it on in the second half. The Irish struggled to 29-percent shooting the first 20 minutes, and had just one assist to 10 turnovers. Jackson saw he had to do something, and started driving the lane on almost every possession, and dished out four assists (it could've been more, but misses in the paint) and got the highest scoring offense in the conference back in its groove.
"I noticed Russell was out of sync, I noticed he wasn't really in his world," Jackson said. "He wasn't attacking like he usually does, he was kind of afraid with the fouls and stuff. I kind of had to pick up his slack or whatever and started attacking a lot more. I didn't really have to score, but getting to the basket and dishing it off, especially the dish to Ryan, that was a big shot."
"We've talked to him about driving the ball more, and finding ways to penetrate and make plays for us," Brey said. "Our team changed from a shooting point guard to more of a driving point guard with McAlarney to Jackson. I don't think we've helped him early in games because he is trying to keep everybody happy so much, he is forgetting to go and the defense keeps pushing us out. The one thing he can do is break the defense down."
Jackson finished with those four helpers and just one turnover. Hillesland had six points and seven rebounds, the final board ending Villanova‘s chances to kick the ball back out for a trey.
Brey only intended to give Carter a blow when he subbed for him with seven minutes to go, but the unit on the floor played well, and Brey stayed with what was working.
A couple clutch shots by Falls, a 3-ball cutting the lead to two with 6:02 to play, and three freebies giving the Irish the lead at 57-55, set things up for the underclassmen to finish out the game the way they did.
"Colin was just rock solid and we road him pretty hard today," Brey stated. "But he was due. He's due to get into a rhythm here right now. Between the foot and the virus, he's had things that have knocked him back. I'd like to see him in gear the rest of the way. He should be."
We'll see if the Irish are in gear Tuesday at Syracuse.