Couple that with stifling Notre Dame defense down the stretch and some botched Panther opportunities in the second half, the Irish can now breathe easier heading into the home stretch of the season.
Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey knows it didn't come easy. "That's a heck of a win for us," he said. "There were a lot of times when we got a little frustrated. We kept finding a way, and I think Tory Jackson's will at key times made his teammates believe. I think we got better defensively in the second half and we controlled the paint, at least in the last 10 minutes of the game."
Notre Dame (20-5, 10-3) benefited from four of its starters scoring in double figures, displaying a solid, balanced attack. Pittsburgh (19-7, 7-6) played physical post defense, double-teaming Luke Harangody, often times frustrating the Big East's leading scorer. Despite the effort, the sophomore forward managed to pick up 23 points, many of which came down the stretch when the Irish seemed to be out of it. One of the leading candidates for Big East Player of the Year, Harangody also picked up 12 boards, and hustled on the defensive side of the ball.
Coach Brey acknowledged Harangody's determination down the stretch, fighting off the physical nature of the Panther low post defense, although he thinks his star sophomore could still improve. "I thought they did a pretty good job on him," Brey said. "They frustrated him a little bit with physicality. He did a better job and we did a better job of finding some angles. But of course, I think he could be more efficient, but he certainly is as good a candidate as anybody [for Big East Player of the Year.]"
Out of the gates, surging sophomore point guard Tory Jackson brought his intensity to the Joyce Center, and the Panthers didn't seem to be ready for it. With both teams trading baskets back and forth, Jackson sparked the Irish offensive early on. The sophomore guard pushed the tempo, and wisely pulled back when the opportunity wasn't there. With just under 13 minutes to go, Jackson found Rob Kurz for a three-pointer to put the game at 13-9, forcing a Panther timeout. When Pittsburgh had the ball, Jackson made sure his presence was felt too. DeJuan Blair thought he had an easy lay in — that was until Jackson came flying from behind him to emphatically swat the ball off the backboard.
Coach Brey had his squad defending man-to-man early in the game, but once he made his initial round of substitutions, he alternated to his 1-2-2 zone featuring either Ryan Ayers or Zach Hillesland at the top of the key. The Panthers seemed out of their comfort zone, missing a series of outside jumpers early on, allowing the Irish to build a lead.
With a little over eight minutes to go in the first half, Notre Dame was moving the ball around the perimeter and finally fed Harangody the ball. Once the sophomore forward felt the double team closing in, he dished the rock to his teammates who looked for the extra pass, eventually finding Jonathan Peoples for a three pointer putting the Irish up 22-15.
Unfortunately for the Irish, Pittsburgh eventually heat up, and started draining its shots. Senior guard Keith Benjamin began finding his stroke, converting on a series of outside shots. With over six minutes to go, Panther leading scorer Sam Young eventually hit a three from the corner to push a an 8-0 run giving Pittsburgh its first lead since 17:48 remained in the half.
For the rest of the half, both teams traded baskets the entire way, although at some points, the Panthers were getting easy short and mid-range looks, helping them build a miniature lead. Notre Dame also went cold, as its last field goal of the half was a Luke Harangody tip-in with 4:26 remaining. Benjamin continued to stroke his shot, and nailed a three-pointer as time winded down to bring the Panther lead to 35-30 at intermission.
At the half, Notre Dame had 13 second-chance points to Pittsburgh's five, but the Panthers shot 42.4% from the field giving them the edge. The Irish also controlled the glass, picking up 24 rebounds to the Panthers' 19. The reason behind the +5 margin? Tory Jackson pulled down eight first-half boards despite his 5-foot-11 frame.
Going into the second half, Pittsburgh came out focused, converting on easy tip-ins and mid-range shots. The Irish weren't going to go quietly, however, and mounted their own run. A pair of back-to-back threes from Kurz and Kyle McAlarney brought Notre Dame to within four at 44-40. Benjamin answered back with five straight points pushing the Panther lead back to nine.
As the Irish continued to fight on, the fans made their presence felt, and willed Notre Dame through the Panther offensive. Coach Brey devised a full court press that confused the Panthers and forced a crucial turnover. A Sam Young three-pointer brought the Panther lead to three, but momentum would soon swing for the Irish, thanks in large part to Jackson.
After picking up a rebound, the sophomore point guard took the ball coast-to-coast, but lost it in the paint. Jackson adeptly recovered the ball, spun between two defenders and sunk the lay-up, bringing the deficit down to three points at 58-53. Not only did the crowd get behind the Irish after the highlight play, but Jackson's teammates also rallied behind him sparking a 22-10 Irish run that signaled Pittsburgh's fate.
"It was a broken play," Brey said. "But when the play is broken, my money is on Jackson coming up with it, no matter who is out there. I mean the [New York] Giants defensive backs could be out there and I still think he's going to come up with it. He is unbelievable at getting loose. But this run was an element of how explosive we could be."
With the game still tight, McAlarney drained two deep threes inciting the crowd, and tying the score at 61. Right after, Luke Harangody stole the ball and trucked down court emphatically slamming home any Panther hopes. A series of threes from Jackson and Ryan Ayers created separation, and the Irish never looked back. It seemed as though the Panthers were all but out of it, until DeJuan Blair found Young charging down the lane for what looked to be the easiest two points he would score all night. The junior forward rose above the defense to slam home the ball, but caught front iron, missing the dunk. The blotched chance effectively signaled the end for the Panthers, as the Irish relied on Harangody to close out the game.
Now, the Irish must close out their second-to-last home game of the season against Syracuse. "They're scary because they can really score, and they're huge," Brey said. "Wait until you see the size they put out there, I mean they are really big, and amazingly talented offensively. They can put 90 up really quick."