Player of the Game – Carleton ScottBen Hansbrough could have earned a repeat listing (Hansbrough was our MVP vs. Pittsburgh) but it was Scott who set the tone, stayed focus despite a vicious cheap shot, and played within himself while knocking down clutch shots as the game progressed.
The redshirt-junior posted a career-high 17 points, hitting 7 of 8 shots from the field including a 3-4 effort from beyond the arc. Scott paced the Irish with nine rebounds (four offensive) including two first half dunks, the first of which sent a jolt of adrenaline into the visitors that lasted through the halftime buzzer.
He sees the floor well, has a nice over-the-head release of the ball at its highest point (reminiscent of Laphonso Ellis) and represents Notre Dame's above-the-rim athlete and best weak side shot-blocker. Scott's improvement over the last four games is staggering, though he'll encounter an athletic match on Wednesday in Huskies forward Stanley Robinson (though Robinson matched up with Tim Abromaitis in the teams' first meeting in early January).
The Irish will run the table if Scott performs similarly over the final week of the regular season.
Key to the Resurgence – Ben HansbroughWe can talk about the contributions of Scott and Jack Cooley over the last three games. We can point to the offensive patience and post development of Tyrone Nash, and we can certainly discuss the leadership of Tory Jackson, but the key to Notre Dame's reappearance on the nation's Bracketology debates has been the all around play of Ben Hansbrough.
The senior transfer serves as the perfect compliment to Jackson: an off-guard that is deadly from the outside, but can also run the show and create offense in half-court sets. Hansbrough's early second-half explosion keyed the Irish road efforts Saturday. He willed consecutive drives for buckets; knocked down an open 3-pointer, then drilled another in defender Chris Wright's grill…the result was a one-man 10-2 run that stretched Notre Dame's early 2nd Half advantage to 11 prior to the first officials timeout.
Hansbrough helped finish off the Hoyas with a back-breaking 3-point bucket (the result of a loose-ball scramble) to stretch the lead from 7 to 10 at the 5:21 mark, then created further space with a strip, sprint, score and (deftly drawn) foul + free throw to provide the Irish a 13-point lead with under five minutes remaining.
Hansbrough will face his toughest individual test of the season on Wednesday vs. Connecticut and a physical, focused defender in Jerome Dyson.
Mentally Tough – Tim AbromaitisThe nation's best shooter couldn't throw it in the ocean from the edge of the pier. After drilling a game-opening corner 3-pointer, Abromaitis proceeded to miss his final eight offerings from beyond the arc (at least four of which were solid, open looks at the rim).
To his credit, the future winner of the Big East Most Improved Player award scrapped his way to 19 points and three offensive rebounds while being closely guarded and held by a handful of Hoyas.
Abromaitis has been the chief recipient of defensive attention in Harangody's absence and has handled it well, totaling 65 points in three games while shooting a shade over 50 percent (including Saturday's 7-19 effort) from the field.
Wednesday's contest in South Bend could provide an elixir for Abro as the redshirt-junior has connected on an astounding 30 of 51 three-point shots in eight Big East home games (and 52 of 90 shots from the field overall vs. conference competition).
Of Note: Saturday's game announcers compared Abromaitis' shooting stroke to Jerry West and his overall game to John Havlicek. Easy there, fellas…
Point Center – Tyrone NashPaul Pressey of the 80s Milwaukee Bucks was the first to earn the moniker "Point Forward." Scottie Pippen popularized it a decade later and Larry Bird fit the bill throughout both time periods.
Tyrone Nash has become Notre Dame's point center. His ability to pass out of the post (both opposite and near-side) resulted in nine points on three wide open 3-point buckets for the Irish (one to Abromaitis and two to Scott). Nash aids the Irish backcourt vs. both zone and (more important) man-to-man full-court pressure, and helps facilitate ball movement in half-court sets.
Aside from consistent foul trouble, the junior post player has few flaws as a role player integral to the team's balanced attack. Though he'll never be a great college free throw shooter, he has improved, knocking down 23 of his last 30 from the charity stripe.
Guts of a Burglar – Tory JacksonShortly after the Irish stretched a six-point halftime lead to a comfortable 12-point advantage, the hometown Hoyas struck back, exploding on an 8-0 run that cut the Irish lead to 50-46 and plugged the sleepy Verizon Center crowd directly back into the proceedings.
With 7:10 remaining, Irish fans felt the requisite El Foldo had begun…Notre Dame was going to squander yet another road lead and drop back off the NCAA Bubble. Then Tory Jackson drilled a dribble-rhythm 3 to extend the lead to seven. Following a Hoyas' bucket he penetrated and assisted on another, this time by Carleton Scott to extend the lead to eight. Six more points by Ben Hansbrough shut up the partisan crowd and deflated the previously surging Hoyas.
Jackson keyed the run, just as he did vs. Pittsburgh and Louisville, and Seton Hall, and South Florida…the Irish rely on Jackson's leadership and fearlessness to help them fight through 40 minutes of conference basketball. Notre Dame cannot win without a major contribution from Jackson, and for the better part of the last month (with the exception of the loss to St. John's), the senior leader has found a way.
Jackson finished with 9 points and a season-high 5 steals in Saturday's upset over the Hoyas.
Jack Cooley – Toast of the TownHe received (all of) the loudest cheers in the team's home win over No. 12 Pittsburgh and he will again when he enters the game Wednesday vs. the Huskies. He brings energy, toughness, and physical – if somewhat, clumsy – presence to the court. Most important, he brings a defensive body on the low block, one not afraid to foul or scrap for anything in the general vicinity.
Jack Cooley's best basketball is (far) in front of him. He commits needless fouls. He's not yet confident outside of three-feet, and he's nowhere near the level as an on-the-ball screener that fellow freshman Mike Broghammer has shown…but Cooley is critical to the team's recent success and to Wednesday's contest vs. the massive Huskies. (You might not see much of him vs. undersized Marquette on Saturday.)
The Irish need 4-5 rebounds, 2-3 fouls, and 2-3 buckets going forward from the improved freshman pivot.
Back in the Spotlight – Jonathan PeoplesNotre Dame has played its best basketball of the season over the last 10 days, due in large part to a bigger lineup (Scott and Cooley on the court with the four usual starters and with Peoples in a decreased role).
But despite a lack of consistent minutes over the last three outings, I have no doubt that the senior will see more time in his final home game…one that will ultimately decide Notre Dame's post-season destination.
Peoples needs to step up when called upon Wednesday night. Loose balls. An offensive rebound. A defensive stop. An open 3-ball. He needs it and the team needs it, because it appears freshman Joey Brooks' brief challenge for playing time has passed.
Coach of the Week – Mike BreyWith four games remaining, should Notre Dame have needed consecutive wins vs. Top 15 teams to return to the good graces of the all-powerful NCAA Selection Committee? Probably not. But the Irish did and they got them, courtesy of a former back-to-back Big East Coach of the Year that had fallen out of favor with Notre Dame's fickle basketball fan base.
Brey deserves ample credit for the team's turnaround. His lineup adjustments, sudden commitment to defense and "burn" offense (primarily utilized in the second half of the last three games) has given the Irish new life and should result in a sell-out and wild crowd for Wednesday's NCAA elimination game at the Purcell Pavilion.
A win Wednesday and another on Saturday or on Wednesday during next week's Big East Tournament would put the Irish back in the Big Dance; a development no reasonable fan would have predicted just two weeks ago today.
Note: IrishEyes will have a detailed game preview including player-by-player matchups of tomorrow's Bubble Bursting contest vs. the Huskies.