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Men’s Basketball: Crazy eighth

Andrew Gastelum | Sunday, February 19, 2012

Add an improbable comeback victory to the improbable eight-game winning streak.

No. 23 Notre Dame rallied from a 20-point deficit to cap a 74-70 come-from-behind overtime win at Villanova, led by four players in double-digit scoring.

“What a night,” Irish coach Mike Brey said to und.com in a postgame interview. “We had a little bit of that look that we had at Louisville and West Virginia and I used that as a reference point at halftime. [I told them to play in] four minute segments and play those last five minutes like we did in Morgantown, just fearlessly with nothing to lose.”

Down 20 late in the first half, the Irish (19-8, 11-3 Big East) spent most of the second half chipping away at the Villanova defense with a barrage of 3-pointers and a ruthless zone defense that only gave up five Wildcat field goals in the entire second half. Freshman guard Pat Connaughton’s 21 points — all from a career-high seven 3-pointers — led the way for the Irish.

“We made big shots. Going zone helped us in the second half because it kept our big guys closer to the bucket and we could rebound a little better,” Brey said. “I just think we are special. I really do … It’s a great win for a group that really believes in itself.”

The Irish made their biggest run with just over four minutes left in the second half, scoring 13 unanswered points in a three-minute span. Sophomore guard Eric Atkins’ acrobatic layup, which led to a three-point play, gave the Irish their first lead since the game’s opening minutes.

Sophomore guard Jerian Grant added a critical 3-pointer to extend the lead to four, but the Wildcats (11-15, 4-10) came back with some late heroics of their own to send the game to overtime. Following two clutch free throws from guard Dom Cheek, center Maurice Sutton’s putback with 0.9 seconds left tied the game at 60.

“Because we did it before in Morgantown, we talked at the 12-minute mark about getting [the lead] to 11 and at the eight-minute mark into single-digits,” Brey said. “We just had to keep game pressure on them because at some point [Villanova] is going to have to win it. We had nothing to lose because we were probably supposed to get blown out anyways after everybody watched the first half. So you become loose in the game.

“And that is where we have been on the road a couple of times. Grant, Atkins and Connaughton are fearless guys. They really make some big plays.”

Grant’s 10 points and nine assists and Atkins’ 17 points and five assists played a huge factor in getting the Irish to overtime, but once overtime began, Connaughton stole the spotlight. The freshman sharpshooter knocked down two decisive 3-pointers: one to take the lead and one to seal the victory with 45 seconds left and a six-point lead.

Junior forward Jack Cooley also added his fourth-straight double-double with 18 points and 13 rebounds.

Notre Dame fought off a strong shooting night from Villanova freshman forward JayVaughn Pinkston (24 points), who had to fill the scoring void of the Wildcats’ injured leading scorer, junior guard Maalik Wayns. But the Irish as a group, Brey said, pulled through against the odds, drawing comparisons to another basketball star.

“[After the Gonzaga loss] I was thinking if we somehow pull off [making it to] the NIT I’m having a parade,” he said. “And that’s what’s great about sport. You never know.

“But collectively we are kind of like a Jeremy Lin. I told our staff the other day, Jeremy Lin and the Irish. Believe it.”

Notre Dame will return home to face West Virginia on Wednesday, looking to extend its season-high winning streak.


Contact Andrew Gastelum at [email protected]