Notre Dame won its sixth consecutive game in the same manner it prevailed in the previous five: with a commitment to patience offensively, and a focus on defensive teamwork and toughness, defeating the Pittsburgh Panthers 50-46 to advance to the Big East Semi-finals.
In a game played so close to the vest that both teams responded to mere 4-0 and 5-0 runs with momentum-slowing timeouts, Luke Harangody came off the bench after an extended period and again played the role of hero, grabbing the game's decisive defensive rebound and knocking down a pair of bonus free throws to give the Irish a four-point lead with 15 seconds remaining.
Fittingly, it was a help-side defensive play that sealed the game for the Irish, as Tim Abromaitis blocked what looked to be an unmolested layup for Travon Woodall at the rim. Seconds later, an errant Jermaine Dixon three-point attempt ended the Panthers hope for a comeback win.
The teams combined for 34 second-half points, both failing to score in separate five-plus minute stretches.
"We got the tempo we wanted," mused Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey post-game. "That's what we want."
The Irish have held five of their last six opponents below 60 points in regulation and each of the six below 65 for the duration of the contest.
Wire-to-WireA Nasir Robinson layup 10 seconds into the contest provided Pittsburgh with a 2-0 advantage...it was the only lead the Panthers would enjoy on the evening.
Tyrone Nash found an early rhythm in the post for the Irish, assisting on Notre Dame's first four buckets and chipping in with three points of his own. The junior from Queens accounted for every point in Notre Dame's 12-4 start.
He also nullified a potential game-tying offensive possession by the Panthers with a defensive rebound in traffic, but the remarkably quick jump ball call that followed gave the ball back to the Panthers with 39 seconds remaining. Dixon's ensuing miss resulted in Harangody's aforementioned game-clinching board and free throws.
Senior guard Ben Hansbrough helped fuel Notre Dame's patient first half attack, consistently breaking down the Panthers perimeter defense late in the opening period, creating seven points for his teammates with his vision in the lane while chipping in with a momentum-grabbing three-point bucket from the key to stifle a 5-0 Panthers run.
Harangody, quiet early and unable to find a rhythm offensively throughout the contest, finished with 12 to tie for team-scoring honors.
"For Luke to bounce back after traveling and hit the two free throws...it shows you the kind of guy he is," Brey offered post-game of Harangody's response to adversity.
The Panthers kept pace behind the play of junior guard Brad Wanamaker, who led all scorers with 16 points. Wannamaker chipped in defensively as well, shadowing Notre Dame's second-leading scorer Tim Abromaitis, holding him to just one bucket on three field goal attempts in 17 first half minutes, then repeating the effort in the second stanza, allowing the Irish junior just seven points and six attempts from the field in 35 minutes of court time.
Notre Dame hit 13 of 21 shots in the opening half to offset poor overall protection of its backboard, surrendering seven offensive rebounds while losing the overall battle on the glass, 14-9 in the first 20 minutes.
The Irish rebounded to match the physical Panthers to a standstill in the second half, as both teams grabbed 13 boards and Pittsburgh managed just two more offensive caroms.
Senior guard Tory Jackson scored nine of his 12 points in the first half, all on three-point buckets, and each the result of kick-out passes from Nash and backcourt mate Ben Hansbrough.
Jackson was hounded in the second stanza by Panthers defensive stopper Jermaine Dixon, but the Irish captain maintained his focus, drilling a backbreaking three-pointer from the key off a screen-and-roll with Harangody to give the Irish a 46-40 lead with 3:31 remaining.
Dixon finished with 10 points but missed 8 of 12 field goal attempts in a team-high 35 minutes.
Nash's early contributions were slowed by Harangody's presence in the lineup as the game progressed as the junior point forward finished with eight points, six rebounds, and six assists in 33 minutes. Five of his assists occurred in the first 11 minutes of the contest.
Notre Dame's Burn offense allowed the Irish to match Pittsburgh with 20 points in the paint, but Mike Brey's streaking squad connected on nearly 53 percent of its field goal attempts compared to 38.6 percent by Jamie Dixon's No.2-seeded Panthers.
Pittsburgh hit just 2 of its 10 three-point field goal attempts while Notre Dame knocked down 6 of 13, including a 5-10 performance in the first half.
The Irish advanced to Friday Night's Semi-Finals and will play the winner of the West Virginia/Cincinnati contest which began at 9:30 Thursday evening. Tomorrow's tip-off is scheduled for 9 pm (ET) on ESPN.
Note: IrishEyes will have more on the victory over the No. 2-seeded Panthers late Friday morning, as well as a preview of tomorrow's semi-final by mid-afternoon.