After an early exit from the Big East Tournament, Notre Dame was able to receive some much-needed rest, resulting in coach Mike Brey's squad displaying fresh legs and time to focus on the Blazers.
"When we got back from New York, we got about three days off, which we needed," Brey said. "We needed some rest and our energy level Sunday night when we came back to practice was excellent and it went on through Monday and I would've been shocked if we weren't ready to go. This group has always been ready to compete and get back on the boards and try again. They knew, hey, we're in a heck of a tournament, a great challenge and you can get a chance to play your way back to New York, and I think our seniors did a good job of setting the tone, the senior captains. They don't want their basketball to end and obviously, they are the ones who responded."
Junior Luke Harangody led Notre Dame in scoring and rebounds, picking up 22 points and 10 boards for his 22nd double-double of the year. Following him was senior shooting guard, Kyle McAlarney who chipped in 12 points on 3-of-6 shooting from the field, and a perfect 4-of-4 from the line. Ryan Ayers and Tory Jackson both added nine points respectively.
Coming out of the starting gate, Notre Dame had a hot hand, shooting 4-of-7 from the field in the first five minutes. To start the scoring, Ayers hit his first shot of the game, a three-pointer from McAlarney. After a defensive stop, Jackson slashed through the Blazer defense and converted a nifty left-handed layup to put the Irish up 5-0.
On the next possession, UAB exploited poor low post defense on Notre Dame's part and Lawrence Kinnard connected on an easy layup. The Blazers stopped Notre Dame's next possession, and Paul Delaney III pushed the tempo and hit his transition lay-in to put the score at 5-4 in favor of the Irish.
Notre Dame tried working the ball into Harangody, which subsequently drew a double-team. The junior power forward then displayed his passing skills and found a slashing Zach Hillesland for a nifty layup. After a UAB turnover, McAlarney connected from long range to put the Irish up six at 10-4. After a pair of Blazer three's from Robert Vaden to tie the contest at 10, the game became a back and forth seesaw battle of trading baskets.
As the first half was winding down, the Irish were clinging to a 31-30 lead when Harangody once again displayed his passing skills to find Tyrone Nash underneath for a reverse layup to put Notre Dame up three. Then, after a pair of defensive stands, the Irish played to their strengths and employed the three-point shot to gain some separation heading into intermission. Thanks to extra passes from Jonathan Peoples and McAlarney, Ayers was able to connect from three-point land in consecutive trips to put Notre Dame up nine, 39-30.
UAB closed out the half with a pair of big baskets, both coming from Vaden. With just under a minute to play in the half, Vaden drove and connected on an effortless layup. Then after some failed Irish possessions, the Blazers held the ball for the last shot of the half, a deep Vaden three at the buzzer that put the score at 39-35 in favor of the Irish.
In the first period, Notre Dame shot lights out from long distance, going 7-of-14 from three-point range, and 48.3-percent overall from the field. However, Irish mistakes ended up costing them in the first half, as their five turnovers ended up turning into five UAB points. The Irish did get solid contributions from their bench players as Peoples hit a pair of three's for six points and Nash and Luke Zeller each pitched in a bucket for ten total bench points in the half. The Blazers, on the other hand, did not have any of their reserves score a point in the first period.
Coming out of halftime, UAB made some adjustments and attacked the Irish defense. Delaney picked up five straight Blazer points and seven of nine as the Blazers ripped off a quick 11-2 run that culminated in a Vaden layup to put the score at 46-41 favoring UAB.
The Irish responded with a run of their own after a Brey timeout trying to halt the Blazer attack. Peoples ended the UAB scoring streak with a 10-foot pull up jumper on a fast break that brought Notre Dame within three points. After a Blazer basket, Jackson nailed a three-pointer as the shot clock was winding down, bringing the margin down to two points. The Irish finally knotted the score at 48 when McAlarney connected on a long two-point jumper from the right wing. Jackson referred to the back and forth tempo of the contest and the multiple runs that each squad had to face.
"With it being the game of basketball, you know that they're going to make a run," he said. "The good thing we did was to stay on top and we took their punches, and I think we dished them back. Once we made a couple of runs, it showed and they got a little frustrated and I think that was it for us right there."
After both squads went relatively cold for some minutes, the Irish went on their final run that sealed the contest. Delaney hit one of a pair of free throws to tie the game up at 50 points apiece. Then, Notre Dame's offense played with a sense of urgency with just over six minutes to play in the half. The Irish missed a couple of close shots, but Nash came through with a tip-in to put Notre Dame up two. After a stop, the sophomore kept attacking resulting in a foul. Although he has struggled for the majority of the season at the free-throw stripe, Nash converted both to put the score at 54-50 favoring the Irish.
The Blazers turned the ball over leading to Jackson taking command of a fast break, and subsequently finding Harangody down low in the paint for a wide-open, emphatic slam. Blazer coach Mike Davis had been barking in the officiating crew's ears for a series of minutes resulting in a pair of technical free throws that McAlarney swished with ease. After yet another stop, Notre Dame found Harangody, who used a spin move in the low post, and then finished with his left to put the Irish up 10, 60-50. Brey spoke about the squad's response to the adversity during the timeout.
"I think they really didn't flinch during that timeout," he said. "We talked about it and I thought they came out and really reacted well and then really for the rest of the game, they rebounded and helped each other and really moved the ball. And I think with the things we've been through, we're pretty mentally tough and we don't worry about as much."
A series of sloppy Irish possessions, however, brought the Blazers back into the contest. Notre Dame's rhythm was stifled, as offensive sets continued to wind down into the waning moments of the shot clock, not concluding with points. A pair of Vaden three-pointers in the span of 50 seconds made matters interesting, bringing the Blazers within four points.
The next Notre Dame possession, however, resulted in a Harangody three-point play, putting the score at 63-56 with just under two minutes to play in the game. Although the Blazers would eventually net some baskets, Notre Dame converted on the majority of its late free throw attempts when UAB was forced to foul Irish players, as the contest ultimately came to its close.
Now that the Irish have successfully escaped the first round of the tournament, there is still a great deal to build upon after the win over the Blazers.
"Including myself, I thought we could finish better," Harangody said. "We did a good job on the backboards. Sometimes in the second half we let them get some second chance points, but overall I thought we played good tonight."