Carter scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half while Hillesland wreaked havoc in the middle of the Friars' 2-3 zone to lift Notre Dame to a 81-78 victory over Providence. The win moves the Irish to 19-6 on the season and 7-5 in the conference. It snaps a mini two-game losing streak, both on the road. What changed? The environment. Notre Dame moved to 16-0 this year at the Joyce Center and now has won 18 contests in a row at home dating back to 2006.
The win means much more in the bigger picture. The loss to DePaul last week put the Irish squarely back on the bubble for the Big Dance. The good thing was that their fate was in their own hands with five games to go in the regular season. A big second half performance from Carter and some fantastic all-around play from Hillesland off the bench proved to be the difference Thursday night to help start the stretch off on a good note.
"It's a heck of a win for us," head coach Mike Brey said. "There's been no bigger win for us this year after coming off two losses. I thought how we defended in the second half and to start the half set the tone. We did a much better job with their big guys than in the first half. They were killing us. They're a real talented team offensively. We dug in and defended."To look down and see 7-5 and 19-6…we're in position. We still have work to do."
A Sharuad Curry basket made it 55-all with 12 minutes remaining in the game. It appeared that the contest would be back-and-forth right down to the final horn. But Notre Dame showed why it's the only team in the Big East with a perfect record at home. The Irish went on a 15-4 run to create some breathing room in the decisive run of the game.
Carter was instrumental in the spurt. The senior guard did not start because of a hip flexor injury sustained last week in practice. Carter, the conference's third leading scorer, played just eight minutes in the first half, scoring two points on 1-of-4 shooting. After intermission though, he showed why he has the potential to be one of the best players in the Big East.
Carter's three-pointer broke the tie and gave Notre Dame a 58-58 lead. To show he was in the zone, he hit another long distance bomb a few possessions later to increase the advantage to 62-57. The play that might have got him going in the second half was with the Friars leading 44-38. Rob Kurz missed both free throws but Carter aggressively grabbed the offensive rebound and converted the basket to start a 7-0 Irish run. Carter shot 4-of-5 in the second half and spurred his teammates on at the offensive end in the final 20 minutes.
"He was great," Brey said. "We need his daring. It's a fine line between a bad shot and a good shot. We need his daring and Zach's daring and we started them in the second half. They keep us attacking and not playing safe or afraid to lose. Those personalities are important to this group. But I'm proud of Russ."
Without Carter's offensive spurt in the second half, Notre Dame might not have won. They surely wouldn't have won without the play of Hillesland. The sophomore tied his career-high set earlier in the season against Syracuse with 14 points. Hillesland did his damage in the paint area.
With Providence employing a 2-3 zone, the sophomore forward was able to get in the middle of it and either create scoring opportunities for himself or teammates. He was a highly efficient 7-of-11 from the field. Hillesland also grabbed eight rebounds and made it hard for Brey to sit him on the bench. The 34 minutes played also tied his career-high. Hillesland's late steal in the final 10 seconds to thwart a late Providence rally summed up his brilliant all-around performance.
"I don't know if there's a better guy in the country set up to do that," Brey said about Hillesland against the zone at the free throw line. "The nice thing I liked was that he knocked down a couple of 10-foot jump shots and took them. He's turned those down sometimes. But man, is he good with the ball. He puts a lot of pressure on people. We like getting the ball into his hands, especially against zone. You want to put him in a position to make plays and he'll make them."
Providence head coach Tim Welsh was none too pleased after the game. His team fell to 15-9 on the season and 5-6 in the Big East. The Friars continue to struggle on the road, mustering only one true road win on the year in the conference. Herbert Hill led Providence with 18 points while fellow big man Jonathan Kale added 17. The Friars scored 46 points down in the paint. Welsh's displeasure came from the officiating in the second half. Notre Dame shot 25 free throws to Providence's one. He couldn't explain how Hill, a post player, took 18 shots from the field and did not have a single free throw attempt in the contest.
"We went in to them in the second half," Welsh said about his big men. "Sometimes they dug in. Sometimes we didn't get to the free throw line when we got hit. Herb got 18 shots and zero free throws. Zero. It's an amazing fact. He's not a guard. He's the best big man in the league. We throw it into him all night long and he gets zero free throws? It's amazing. That's an amazing stat right there. It wasn't like he was shooting fade away jump shots. He was going into the lane. Come on, it was ridiculous."
Curry 4-14, 2-2 11; William 0-1, 0-0 0; McDermott 3-6, 0-0 7; Efejuku 3-3, 0-1 7; Hill 9-18, 0-0 18; McKenzie 6-8, 0-0 16; Kale 6-10, 5-6 17; Hall 1-1, 0-1 2; Totals: 32-61 (52 percent), 7-10 78.
NOTRE DAME 81Jackson 3-7, 3-4 10; Falls 3-9, 9-10 16; Kurz 5-12, 5-8 15; Hillesland 7-11, 0-2 14; Zeller 0-0, 0-0 0; Ayers 2-2, 0-0 5; Carter 5-9, 2-5 15; Harangody 3-5, 0-0 6; Totals: 28-55 (50 percent), 19-29 81.