"I think any time you get off to a great start, it certainly helps you," Irish head coach Mike Brey said of his squad's hot shooting. "We did do that. I thought our defense really for the game was the story of it. To hold them to 21 points in the first half and 50 for the game I think was the storyline of the game. One of the things we wanted to get back to was rebounding the basketball better than we did the first four games. And I thought we did that tonight."
Notre Dame used team defense along with a balanced scoring attack to prevent any further talk of a repeat Cinderella run for the Patriots. Luke Harangody notched his 18th double-double of the season with 18 points and 14 boards. The Irish had two other players in double figures, as Kyle McAlarney picked up 15, while Ryan Ayers tallied 12 coming off of the bench.
To start the game, it appeared as though Notre Dame was uncertain how to attack the Colonial Athletic Association champions, until Tory Jackson put up a three as the shot clock expired. Once the ball sank through the net, the Irish knew that they would be hitting their outside shots. After Will Thomas put the Patriots on the board with a short jumper, McAlarney hoisted a three pointer of his own that fell through the net, putting the Irish up 6-5.
Thomas continued to heat up, having his way against senior center, Rob Kurz. The Patriot senior forward put up 11 first half points, most of them coming against the Irish senior captain. Notre Dame started to look in the post for Big East Player of the Year, feeding him the ball down low. The sophomore power forward made back-to-back field goals with over 17 minutes to play in the half, the second of which turned into a three-point play with a foul, putting the Irish up 11-7.
In the following minutes, George Mason couldn't find its offensive rhythm, as its set plays usually resulted in forced shots that didn't find the back of the net. For Notre Dame, however, it was a different story. The Irish went on a 17-0 run that saw the Notre Dame lead explode to 16 points. Kurz drained a pair of back-to-back threes to sustain the run, as well as a pair of Ayers and Luke Zeller three-pointers.
The Irish run was as much of an offensive show as it was a display of solid defense in the post. Thomas scored a pair early on, but Kurz increased his physicality to limit the forward's shots. Perhaps a bigger story was Zach Hillesland's shutdown defense on Patriot leading scorer Forlain Campbell. The senior forward could not buy a bucket, going 0-for-9 from the field in the first half for no points. The Irish guards also shut down George Mason along the perimeter, causing them to force some outside shots that didn't fall. Additionally, once the Patriots got the ball in the low post, they could not convert on many of their high-percentage shots, missing several lay-ups in the half.
Another impressive aspect of the Irish run was that the majority of the second half of the spurt came while Harangody was on the bench resting. This enabled Notre Dame to spread the ball and create a balanced offensive attack.
Both squads started to trade baskets, as the Irish lead hovered around double digits for the entirety of the half. However, Notre Dame's hot hand started to cool off as the Irish faced a bit of a drought, not picking up a field goal for over three minutes. Although the Irish offensive slowed down, George Mason could not capitalize and continued its shooting woes, going 9-of-26 from the field in the half. The Patriots did close the gap to end the half, coming up with three field goals, two of which were in the paint to bring the score to 33-21 at intermission.
As the half began, Will Thomas was the only Patriot to continue to threaten the Irish with his scoring prowess. He accounted for over half of George Mason's points in the first half, and began the second right where he left off. However, Hillesland continued to play stifling defense on Campbell, as he blocked a seemingly easy lay-up from the senior. The Patriots second-half adjustments didn't result in positive changes, as they continued to struggle on offense. For the Irish, the shots kept falling, and Harangody was making his presence felt down low. After a McAlarney three pointer, Harangody received the ball down low after Kurz found the Irish leading scorer for an easy flush, bringing the score to 40-23 in favor of Notre Dame.
After Campbell finally hit his first field goal, Tory Jackson had arguably a pair of the best plays of the night. Jackson determinedly penetrated to the hoop and put in a reverse lay-in in addition to a Patriot foul, letting him convert the three-point play. In another sequence, he turned the ball over, but made up for it as the sophomore point guard came from the weak side on help defense to block a shot off the rim. He then proceeded to take the ball the length of the court, causing Patriot defenders to collapse on him, allowing him to feed the ball to a wide open Harangody who emphatically slammed home two points, bringing the Irish lead to 18 points.
The Patriots felt the pressure of the impending loss breathing down their necks and started to press Notre Dame off of the inbounds pass. The Irish, however, easily broke the pressure and converted on transition baskets. On one occasion, the Irish surpassed the full court press, finding Ayers for a pull-up two-point jump shot. The next time down the court, Harangody received the ball down low and tipped in his own missed lay-up, followed by a McAlarney three that pushed the Irish up 55-36 with the quick 7-0 run.
Notre Dame milked the clock for the rest of the contest, enabling them pull out the victory. Looming next is No. 21/21 Washington State, with whom Brey sees a lot of parallels to George Mason. "The pace of how [George Mason] plays kind of lends itself to that kind of tempo," he said. "It's interesting because on Saturday, the tempo is gonna be similar because Washington State grinds you the same way. So I'm glad that we had a game here and we had some games at the end of the season, as Kyle said, the Big East prepared us for some of those at the end of the year."