Notre Dame Fighting Alumni rookies deliver thrilling TBT win

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CHICAGO — He’s been gone from Notre Dame for four full college basketball seasons, but little has changed as game time and winning time nears for former guard Ben Hansbrough.

A good 90-plus minutes before Thursday’s opening-round contest in The Basketball Tournament Super 17 at McGrath-Phillips-Arena, there was Hansbrough going through his pre-game routine that was so common during his two seasons in South Bend. Jumpers from the corner. Good. Pull-ups in the lane. Good. Sweat broken about five minutes in. Good to go. Ready to play.

Ready to, in his words, “put on a show.”

He delivered with the show.

Hansbrough scored 23 points then found guard Eric Atkins for a nifty reverse layup with 0.2 seconds remaining to lead the Notre Dame Fighting Alumni to a 79-77 victory over the Midwest Dream Squad.

Notre Dame advances to meet the Ants Alumni squad Friday at 8:30 p.m. South Bend time.

“I’m exhausted,” Hansbrough admitted afterward. “That was a real smart read by Eric. His man got caught watching and he went backdoor.”

Atkins admitted that he believed he was cutting for no real reason. With the ball in Hansbrough’s hands and him getting a full head of steam coming up the floor after a timeout, Atkins figured No. 23 would take the last shot.

“Ben got the ball and all eyes were on Ben,” said Atkins, who delivered 18 points. “I just cut to the basket. Knowing Ben, I did not think I was getting the ball. He was shooting it. I cut.

“I was just hoping I got it off in time and I did.”

Atkins and Hansbrough made their TBT debuts Thuirsday.

An Atkins layup and free throw gave Notre Dame a two-point lead with 10.7 seconds remaining. Mike Dinunno then was fouled by Tory Jackson with 5.4 seconds left. His two free throws tied it at 77.

“He grabbed my arm,” Jackson said when asked why he would foul in that situation. “I was trying to get my hand away. It was a smart play.”

The Irish led by seven with just over nine minutes to play following a Tim Abromaitis dunk. They then trailed by five with less than four minutes remaining after going without a basket for nearly six minutes.

“We really had to claw and dig down,” Hansbrough said. “It was a tough-fought game. We had a lot of time.”

Hansbrough scored eight of the Fighting Alumni’s first nine points. Notre Dame led by as many as four, but found itself down nine with just over eight minutes remaining in the 18-minute first half. And when Adrian Moss stepped into a 3-pointer with 8:14 remaining, the defending champions were down 10.

Hansbrough started with Atkins at guard with Tim Abromaitis, Rob Kurz and Ty Nash in the frontcourt. They broke their huddle with a familiar chant from their college days.


Irish coach Mike Brey worked Thursday’s game as a color commentator on ESPNU. Notre Dame play-by-play man Jack Nolan handled similar duties for the television broadcast. Sitting courtside was more nerve-wracking than stalking the sideline, especially when Notre Dame was down five with 3:36 remaining.

“I’m saying, ‘I jinxed them because I decided to do the TV,’” Brey said. “It was thrilling to watch and really not surprising. Ben Hansbrough sets one heck of a tone.

“Some things never change.”

With Notre Dame trailing by one late in the first half, Hansbrough ran by Brey and asked, “What do we gotta do, Coach? More movement?”

Next time down the floor, Hansbrough found Nash for a layup and the lead.

Notre Dame led by four at halftime. Hansbrough then picked up four fouls the first nine minutes of the second half.

Three former Irish – Jordan Cornette, Zach Hillesland and Kieran Piller, the former Irish walk-on guard who has put the teams together each of the last two summers – served Thursday as coaches. The Fighting Alumni practiced twice this week in Chicago and put in a couple basic inbound/set plays.

“My playing days are over,” said Hillesland, who played little on last year’s TBT championship squad.

For Cornette, his main job this week was making sure everyone on the active roster got to where they needed to go, when the needed to be there. It was no small job, especially when it came to former Irish power forward Torin Francis, who always seemed to be running late. For everything.

“He moves at a snails-pace,” Cornette said of Francis.

Francis was one of the last ones out of the locker room for warm-ups.

“It’s the Jamaican in me,” he said of his easy-going gait and pace and attitude.

Members of the Fighting Alumni all were in town by Tuesday. Abromaitis, who splits his offseason time from playing Europe between Colorado and his home state of Connecticut, flew in from Denver. Jackson, who still has a fear of flying, reluctantly accepted the free ticket from TBT officials and arrived from Detroit. Hansbrough flew up from Bowling Green, Ky., where he now calls home.

It was a shorter trip for guys like Cornette, Piller and Luke Harangody, who all call Chicago home.

Notre Dame worked out together Wednesday at McGrath-Phillips Arena before joining their former college head coach for dinner. The group convened on famed Division Street at Carriage House, where Hillesland now works as a manager. Appetizers on the meu include chilled watermelon tossed with lime tobacco, honey and mint.

The stories – along with maybe a few spirits – flowed for a few hours. Most of the tales centered behind-the-scenes locker room stories, which produced plenty of laughter.

Ryan Ayers, who led last year’s TBT team in scoring, was unable to participate in this weekend’s game in Chicago, but he has a good excuse. As a second-year assistant coach at Bucknell University, Ayers is currently recruiting in Las Vegas.

Brey leaves Friday morning for Vegas, the last stop on this month’s college recruiting circuit.

The Fighting Alumni also played without guard Colin Falls, who dressed in uniform but wore running shoes instead of hoops shoes.

“My feet are killing me,” said Falls, who battled plantar fasciitis during his collegiate career.

Harangody, who recently finished NBA summer league with the Phoenix Suns, also did not play.

Who’s who watches

•The only other Notre Dame graduate to participate this month in TBT action was former power forward Garrick Sherman, who played on a Grantland team that lost in the second round of the West Region.

“I had a great time,” he said.

Sherman was in the arena Thursday to watch the Irish.

•Former Irish small forward Scott Martin, who has played the last two years in England, also was in attendance with his former Valparaiso High School teammate and Purdue standout Robbie Hummel.

•Also in the arena stands for Thursday’s game were former Irish guard and recent first-round NBA draft pick Jerian Grant, who was in town to spend some time with one of his closest friends and former teammate Atkins, who was playing in his first TBT. Grant’s older brother, Jerai, participated in TBT on a team. From the Washington-metro area that won two games before losing.

Grant joined Brey earlier Thursday during a promotional appearance at the UnderArmour store on Michigan Avenue. UnderArmour just finished its first year as the official athletic apparel provider of Notre Dame. Grant plans to sign with UnderArmour heading into his NBA rookie season with the New York Knicks.

•Irish senior power forward Zach Auguste traveled with Grant from campus for the game.

•Former Irish power forward Ryan Humphrey came bounding out of the standings to help the Fighting Alumni celebrate.

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Watch Eric Atkins' game-winning layup. Here: