NOTRE DAME, Ind. – With its postseason aspirations seemingly hanging in the balance with every game, Notre Dame shook off a disappointing first half and hung on for a 70-65 victory over Rutgers on Wednesday night at the Joyce Center.
"We will take it," Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said afterward.
The Irish received another short performance from Luke Harangody in the first half and unlike the game at Providence, they did not get nearly the production from Ryan Ayers and Kyle McAlarney that they did in Rhode Island. Harangody finished the half with just four points on 2-of-12 shooting and while McAlarney had seven points, Ayers had none.
Fortunately for Notre Dame, the Irish were able to assert themselves right from the start of the second half.
"We knew we weren't playing our best, but we were still very confident," McAlarney said. "We knew that in the second half it was going to come so we were just waiting for it."
Although he felt the need to pump up the Joyce Center crowd in the second half, Brey did not feel it was necessary to deliver a passionate halftime speech.
"It wasn't, ‘What did you say to them at halftime?,'' Brey recalled of the locker room at the half. "It was, ‘Talk amongst yourselves, fellas. All of the stuff we've been through, we've got 20 more minutes, slow down a little bit offensively. Relax, do what you do. Don't panic because 20 minutes is a long time.'
"They handled it great."
Harangody came back with 16 in the second half to lead Notre Dame with 20 points and 15 rebounds. Tory Jackson finished with 18 points and McAlarney had 13.
"We knew that our offense was going to come because we were in such a good rhythm lately in the past few games and in practices that we knew that rhythm was going to hit," McAlarney said. "That's what kind of went wrong for a little bit, we lost our identity."
"I'm impressed with Rutgers' personnel," Brey said. "I was very worried about this game because they have some young guards that can really put it on the floor and they have some big guys that really bother you and you can't establish your low post. That's exactly what happened in the first half."
The win moves the Irish to 16-11 overall and 7-8 in the Big East Conference while dropping the Scarlet Knights to 10-18 and just 1-14 in the league. Notre Dame will play at Connecticut on Saturday afternoon where the Irish could move themselves off the NCAA Tournament bubble with a victory.
Rutgers' hot shooting start allowed the Scarlet Knights to carry a lead for most of the first half. Notre Dame led 4-0 one minute in, but did not lead again until the opening minutes of the second half.
Trailing 35-27 at the half, the Irish used their strength and a re-energized crowd to open with an 11-2 run. The squads traded baskets to start the frame before Ayers made three free throws after being fouled on a three-point attempt.
After a made free throw by Harangody, Ayers blocked a dunk attempt by Rutgers' Hamady Ndiaye and Harangody converted a three-point play on the other end to bring the Irish to within one just two minutes into the half.
Jackson gave Notre Dame the lead on the next possession and even after a bucket from Rutgers gave the Knights the lead back, a three-pointer from McAlarney put the Irish up 41-39. Rosario gave Rutgers a 42-41 advantage with a triple, but a Jackson layup put Notre Dame back on top. Notre Dame never trailed again.
Consecutive three-point plays from Tyrone Nash and Harangody helped Notre Dame increase its lead to 51-45 with less than 12 minutes to play in the contest. Jackson made a great save to get Harangody a basket and then Jackson drilled a three-pointer on the following possession as Notre Dame's lead grew to nine, 56-47.
Notre Dame led by as many as 12 before Rutgers came back with a 9-0 run that cut it to three with just over two minutes to play. Rosario had a chance to cut the lead to one with less than a minute to play, but rimmed out a pair of free throws.
The Scarlet Knights were given renewed life after Harangody was called for an offensive foul with 25 seconds left, giving Rutgers the ball down three. The Knights ran Rosario off a screen and after a pump fake, he got a clean look at a three, but could not knock it down. Harangody drained a pair of free throws to put the Irish up five.
Farmer hit a three-pointer to keep Rutgers alive, but Jackson escaped to the other end and was intentionally fouled by Farmer. Jackson made both free throws to put Notre Dame up four and Harangody swished another to seal the game.
"We're thrilled to be 7-8 in this league," Brey said.
Especially after the way Rutgers started.
After missing their first two shots of the game, the Scarlet Knights converted on nine of their next 11 while the Irish did the exact opposite, making their first two attempts before missing on nine of their next 11.
"They hit every shot we can imagine," Jackson said. "They had nothing to lose, but we kept our heads, although we did get frustrated in the beginning. When you see guys hitting shots like that, it amazes you sometimes."
McAlarney started the Irish off with two quick buckets, but Rutgers responded with a 10-0 run that was capped with back-to-back three-pointers from Farmer and Rosario to take a 10-4 lead less than four minutes in.
Luke Zeller came off the bench to score four points for the Irish, but Rosario hit another three and Chandler had a pair of hoops that give the Scarlet Knights a 21-10 lead with 11:45 remaining in the half.
An inside move by Nash followed by an up-and-under shot from the sophomore allowed the Irish to cut the deficit to seven and a McAlarney bomb two possessions later cut it to four.
But Rutgers answered with a 6-0 spurt to push the advantage back into double-digits with five minutes to go in the half.
The Irish tried to cut into the margin, but Rutgers always had an answer. Gregory Echenique responded to a Harangody putback with an inside bucket of his own and three-pointers from Jackson and Zeller were answered with trifectas by Jaron Griffin and Farmer as the Knights hung onto a 35-25 lead with under three to go.
A Jackson layup on Notre Dame's final possession of the half made it an eight-point game, 35-27, at intermission.
Rutgers had balanced halftime numbers with Rosario leading the way with eight while Farmer had seven and Griffin and Chandler each had six.
In addition to McAlarney's seven, Zeller also had seven while Jackson had five and Nash had four to go along with Harangody's four.
The Scarlet Knights finished the half 15 of 27 (55.6%) while the Irish were just 11 of 28 (39.3%). Rutgers was the team that took advantage of the longball, making five of 12 from beyond the arc while Notre Dame took just six three-pointers, making half of them.