New York – Notre Dame controlled the first half, as well the opponent's stubborn, ill-advised full-court pressure, then pulled away with an 11-2 run early in the second stanza for an 89-51 win over Cincinnati Thursday night.
The victor’s 40-30 intermission advantage was forged by an 8 for 15 shooting effort from long range, including four 3-point buckets by senior forward Tim Abromaitis. But after 15 long distance jumpers in the first 20 minutes, Notre Dame didn’t attempt its first three-point shot of the second half until newly minute Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough drained his patented “look-down” jumper at the 14:09 mark, giving the Irish a 58-39 advantage.
Coupled with his determined drives to the hole and constant movement without the ball, Hansbrough’s hesitation move out top – and quick glance at the ground prior to springing upward for a long jump shot – has made him one of the toughest perimeter covers in the nation this season.
“It's all a matter of how you prepare, and I think this group has prepared tremendously all year,” Hansbrough said. “Coach Brey did a great job pushing us.”
He finished with a game high 23 points, hitting 8 of 11 field goal attempts and each of his five free throws.
Free throws served as the final nail in an already secured coffin for the humbled Bearcats, as the commitment of their 5th, 6th, and 7th team fouls within a 12-second span, sent the Irish to bonus free throws with 13:25 remaining.
From there Notre Dame’s lead ballooned to 25 after a Hansbrough drive and finish-plus-foul with just over eight minutes remaining. It hit 30 at the four minute mark before head coach Mike Brey turned to the bench ballast, inserting Joey Brooks, Alex Dragicevich, and Thomas Knight.
Back-to-back buckets by Knight and Jack Cooley offered walk-on Tom Kopko his earliest entry of the conference season, the 2:31 mark of the Big East Quarterfinals.
The disparity between the previously hot Bearcats – the Big East’s sixth seed and winners of six of seven entering the contest – and the scorching Irish (now victors in 12 of their last 13) was apparent throughout the final 20 minutes. Notre Dame’s veterans riddled the Bearcats’ previously stout defense with a variety of backdoor cuts, post moves, transition opportunities, and inside-out passing that led to myriad open looks and easy buckets at the rim.
"We already know what happened," said Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin. "They're tough to defend, and at some point, the fact that we couldn't make a shot affected our defense.
"Notre Dame played tremendous tonight, and we obviously, well, when we were at our worst they were at their best," he added. "We got taken to the woodshed."
Notre Dame hit 11 of its first 16 second half offerings and buried nine of its first 18 three-point shots with the game in doubt (9-19 overall). Cincinnati, conversely, rediscovered its mid-season identity as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, bricking 17 of their 22 long-range offerings and finishing the contest at 32.8 percent from the field.
Hansbrough scored 14 of his points after the break and finished with a game-high six assists vs. two turnovers. Notre Dame assisted on 22 of its buckets while committing just five turnovers despite nearly constant full-court pressure in some form from the Bearcats.
Carleton Scott augmented Hansbrough’s efforts with 18 points, six rebounds, four assists, and a season-best four blocked shots. His six field goals marked a conference high this season as well. Abromaitis finished with 17 points, 14 in the opening half, while collecting six boards with four assists in 29 minutes.
Scott Martin added 11 points with three boards, two assists, a block and a steal in 32 minutes without a turnover. It was Martin’s second outing in his last seven in which he did not commit more turnovers than assists registered, and his first double-digit scoring game over the last four contests.
Saddled with two fouls in the opening minutes, Tyrone Nash scored eight points and grabbed five boards in the second half while facilitating the Irish offense as a low-post passer and extra perimeter ball-handler. Nash has 20 assists and 7 turnovers in his last five outings.
The Irish finished the contest on a 40-12 run with the final margin serving as the largest of the evening. They scored 20 of their first 64 points as a direct result of beating the Bearcats extended pressure defenses.
With the win, Brey’s Irish enter their third conference semi-final in the last five seasons and second straight. Notre Dame will take on the winner of the Wednesday nightcap between No. 4 seed Louisville and No. 11 seed Marquette. The Irish defeated the Cardinals in overtime in mid-February while splitting a pair of January matchups with the Golden Eagles this season.