Irish Rewind: A Notre Dame win out of nowhere

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH – When one of the craziest crowds in one of the most intimidating arenas anywhere had been quieted, Notre Dame senior captain Ben Hansbrough had plenty of pep left.

Hansbrough, who again was a one-man wrecking crew at the most opportune time for No. 15 Notre Dame, ran to the Irish bench and chest-bumped teammates, then hustled toward midcourt and jumped time and again into the upset air.

Fatigue? What fatigue? Hansbrough and the Irish might not sleep the rest of the week following a 56-51 victory Monday over No. 2 Pittsburgh at Petersen Events Center, a place the Irish had not won in five previous trips and a place where the Panthers had won 20 in a row, 51 of their last 52 and were 145-11 since the building opened in 2002.

Hansbrough led the Irish with 19 points – 15 in the final 12-plus minutes, and eight points the final 4:28 when the game was for the taking. The fifth-year senior also made sure to wrestle the win away with seven assists and four rebounds.

“This is probably the best win I’ve had, maybe ever,” Hansbrough said. “I couldn’t be happier.”

Hansbrough wasn’t alone in his work.

Senior captain Carleton Scott delivered 16 points, including five 3-pointers, with nine rebounds. He also connected on a key four-point play with just over seven minutes remaining that bumped the Irish lead to five.

“I’m feeling really good,” said Scott.

Not since Jan. 5, 2000 against defending national champion Connecticut, when Matt Doherty patrolled the Irish sideline, had Notre Dame won on the road against a team ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation. Never before Monday had the Irish beaten a league team ranked so high during Mike Brey’s tenure. The Irish did beat then-No. 2 Texas at the neutral-site BB&T Classic in 2002, but this one was bigger. Much bigger.

Or was it?

“It’s the sixth league win,” Brey deadpanned in the post-game press conference. “And we’re thrilled. I’m very proud of our group. We certainly executed our game plan.”

Instead of being handed another crusher conference loss to a team installed as 10-1/2 point favorites, Notre Dame (17-4 overall; 6-3 Big East) jumped back into its burn offense, which thoroughly flustered the Panthers (19-2; 7-1). The Irish employed the same style twice late last season to beat the Panthers, who knew what was coming once the Irish held the ball on the game's first possession.

And just like last year, Pittsburgh seldom had a winning answer.

"That's pretty much their formula against us," said senior Gilbert Brown. "They're great at what they do. We failed to meet the challenge."

Brey delivered a clear message following Saturday's win over Marquette about what Monday's game plan would look like.

"I said, 'Heat the stove up for Monday night, 'cause we're burning all night,'" he said.

There were many times when it looked like the Irish teetered on the brink of another road blowout. Notre Dame had trouble rebounding and trouble getting good looks - the team's second-leading scorer, Tim Abromaitis, was smothered without a field-goal attempt. The Irish were down seven. They were down six. But they responded. With a Hansbrough shot. With a Scott play. With a key defensive stop when it was anyone's game the final 10 minutes.

Notre Dame refused to fold, and then found a way to sneak out of the Steel City - make that the Steal City - and silence the crowd of 12,591.

"This," Brey said, "was the ultimate road challenge for us."

Hansbrough, who admitted less than two nights earlier that he was "dead" after driving Notre Dame to a victory over Marquette with a career-high 28 points, refused to go down without a fight, even while getting his teeth rattled trying to draw a charge.

"My body was definitely fatigued," Hansbrough said. "But I don't think the fire on this team was fatigued at all."

Time and again late in the second half and late in the "burn" clock, Hansbrough found himself working a high-pick-roll against a Pittsburgh defense that was bewildered to stop him. One time, he simply stepped back on Panthers center Gary McGhee and stuck a huge 3-pointer that made it 42-41 Irish. Then on consecutive possessions, Hansbrough kept his dribble and his scoring options alive long enough to see the lane open as wide as the Monongahela River. He finished with layups both times.

Afterward, members of the Oakland Zoo student section filed out of the arena in stunned silence. For them, nothing made sense. Lose? At home? To Notre Dame? That wasn't supposed to happen, not after the town's beloved Steelers had punched their ticket to another Super Bowl less than 24 hours earlier. Not in league play, where the Panthers had seemingly been invincible.

But lose the Panthers did, partly because much of what kept them together - team play - disappeared against one of the league's most experienced and savvy and battle-tested and tough teams that felt all along it was on the verge of something special.

"As long as we took the crowd out of the game, I felt we had a chance," said senior captain Ty Nash. "And we did that."

That they did.

NOTRE DAME (56): Tyrone Nash 1-2 3-5 5, Tim Abromaitis 0-0 2-2 2, Carleton Scott 5-11 1-1 16, Scott Martin 3-10 1-2 10, Ben Hansbrough 8-14 2-3 19, Eric Atkins 1-1 0-0 2, Jack Cooley 1-1 0-0 2. TOTALS: 19-39 9-13 56.

PITTSBURGH (51): Gilbert Brown 3-7 6-6 13, Nasir Robinson 1-4 2-4 4, Gary McGhee 2-4 1-4 5, Ashton Gibbs 4-13 0-0 9, Brad Wanamaker 5-12 0-0 12, Travon Woodall 2-2 0-0 6, Dante Taylor 1-3 0-2 2, Lamar Patterson 0-0 0-0 0, Talib Zanna 0-0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 18-45 9-16 51.

Halftime score: Pittsburgh 28, Notre Dame 23. 3-point goals: Notre Dame 9-18 (Scott 5-6, Martin 3-6, Hansbrough 1-6), Pittsburgh 6-15 (Woodall 2-2, Wanamaker 2-4, Brown 1-4, Gibbs 1-5). Total fouls: Notre Dame 12, Pittsburgh 14. Shooting: Notre Dame 19-of-39 (48.7 percent), Pittsburgh 18-of-45 (40 percent). Rebounds: Notre Dame 23 (Scott 9), Pittsburgh 29 (McGhee 7). Assists: Notre Dame 11 (Hansbrough 7), Pittsburgh 9 (Wanamaker 3). Turnovers: Notre Dame 10, Pittsburgh 8. Records: Notre Dame 17-4 (6-3 Big East), Pittsburgh 19-2 (7-1 Big East). Officials: Ed Corbett, Michael Stephens, Tony Greene. Attendance: 12,591.

Each week during the college basketball season, NDI takes a look back at a memorable Irish game with a reprint of the story that appeared in the South Bend Tribune.

This week's Irish Rewind was another easy one - it was a game where the Irish "burn" offense took on a life of its own.

Coming off a grueling 80-75 victory over Marquette barely 48 hours earlier, Notre Dame traveled to Pittsburgh to face the No. 2 Panthers. Mike Brey decided the Irish had to squeeze every second out of the shot clock and make the Panthers guard, then guard some more. And the strategy worked to near perfection thanks to eventual Big East player of the year Ben Hansbrough.

Notre Dame 56, Pittsburgh 51.

This story appeared in the Jan. 25, 2011 edition of the Tribune.

If you have a suggestion for Irish Rewind, send it to tnoie@ndinsider.com.