"They've got the body types that are long and fast and they get to loose balls," head coach Mike Brey said about Villanova's defense. "They hurt us on the offensive glass in the first half. Our defense played well. We were down four (at halftime) but we didn't play well. I'm glad we're done with them, quite frankly. We'll probably play them a third time in the tournament, knowing our luck."
The bad numbers for No. 21 Notre Dame didn't end at field goal shooting. The Irish committed 18 turnovers to only eight assists. They were a miserable 5-of-20 from three point distance. The 66 points are 17 underneath they're season average. In the first half, Notre Dame scored 21 points. It's their lowest total before intermission on the year. Villanova came into the contest third to last in the Big East in scoring defense but were giving the Irish all sorts of problems.
"They were doubling you," Brey said. "They were scrambling. They are very quick to the ball. There's not a rhyme or reason to it sometimes but it's so fast and physical. You don't run your offense against them. You make two of three passes, hit the open man and hopefully he makes a play because you can't run any continuity against them. They drive you right out of there."
In the end, the numbers might look ugly but Brey and his team will more than gladly take the victory and improve to 5-3 in league play.
*On the other end of the floor, the Irish defense certainly stepped up its efforts. In the January 17th loss in Philadelphia, Notre Dame allowed the Wildcats to shoot 56 percent from the field and surrendered 102 points. The total was the most ever allowed under Brey in a regulation game.
On Saturday, it was a different day and a different outcome. The Irish held Villanova to 63 points, which is 14 points below their season average. Curtis Sumpter, the Big East's third leading scorer at 17.9 PPG, shot just 3-of-13 and scored 11 points. The biggest difference was the job on point guard Scottie Reynolds. Although the freshman scored a career-high 27 points in the first meeting between the teams and was having his way with the Notre Dame defense, a few forced turnovers late created opportunities for the Irish to win the game.
"I thought we did a much better job of the ball screens on Reynolds," Brey said. "He crushed us getting in there. Our bigs helped us but Tory (Jackson) did a nice job. We had him going underneath it instead of over-the-top and meeting Reynolds on the other side. If Tory did get beat, we rotated well. We didn't do that in Philadelphia."
*Ryan Ayers has been seldom used this season. The sophomore forward's high point total in 2006-07 was six points. Ayres also hasn't been shooting well enough from three-point range. Coming into Saturday's game, he was 7-for-26 from behind the arc. Still, Brey had the confidence to go to him late and he delivered in the clutch.
With the team down 60-57 at the 2:38 mark, the Irish did not have leading scorer Russell Carter or second leading scorer Rob Kurz on the floor. Jackson drove into the lane and found Ayres on the left wing, where he buried a three-pointer to tie the contest up. On the next possession, he was fouled on a three-point attempt from the top of the key. Ayres sank two of the three shots from the charity stripe to give Notre Dame the lead for good.
"These are situations that you have to be prepared for and we practice a lot of game situations in practice," Ayres said. "Just going out there and being confident and knowing my teammates have confidence in me, I was able to step up and be accountable."
*The referees prolonged the game quite a bit. They called 45 personal fouls in the game and the two teams combined to shoot 61 free throws. The game lasted a bit over two and a half hours. Amazingly, in the first half, 13 fouls were issued while 19 free throws were attempted. In the second half, there was a huge turnaround to how the game was being called. Notre Dame and Villanova combined for 32 fouls and 42 free throws in the final 20 minutes of action.
"You do have to talk about it," Brey said about the way the game was officiated from half to half. "I talked about it in the timeouts and at halftime. I said, ‘Look, this is going to be one of those ugly Big East games.' It's not going to be a game where we are scoring, running and cutting. Adjust and keep digging and scratching. I thought we did a good job of that. It's a step forward for this group."
*Russell Carter's day wasn't one for the scrapbook. The conference's second leading scorer at 18.7 PPG coming into Saturday, the senior guard shot just 3-of-11 from the floor and ended with a hard fought 14 points. He was constantly being harassed by long and lanky Villanova defenders, forcing him into low percentage shots.
The most curious aspect was his absence from the court the final seven minutes. After picking up his second and third foul in the matter of eight seconds, Brey inserted Zach Hillesland into the lineup for Carter. Little did he know that would be the final time he would see the floor. Carter sat the final 7:12 of the contest. In that time, Notre Dame turned around a 55-48 deficit and into a 66-63 victory, a positive margin of 10 points.
"They really defended him and pressure him well," Brey said about Carter. "People are really taking him away. Our offense got a little wacky because he was trying to force some plays. I took him out not to take him out for the rest of the game. I took him out to get him a blow and have Coach (Gene) Cross talk to him. The group that was in there started playing real well. We kind of stayed with it and I thought that group needed to finish the game."