Double-digit underdog Providence hung around for a half, and trailed just 31-30 early in the second half. A 24-2 run over about 10 minutes gave Notre Dame a big lead, and while the Friars made a late push, the Irish prevailed 75-69. It wasn’t quite that close.
The first half belonged to Jack Cooley, who had 21 points and 10 rebounds in the first 20 minutes – and if that wasn’t enough, the man guarding him, Kadeem Batts, fouled out with 14:37 to go. Cooley finished with 27 points and 17 rebounds, bouncing back after a dreadful game against Georgetown.
Eric Atkins scored seven points in the first nine minutes of the second half to help the Irish build the lead, and Jerian Grant contributed a couple of big 3-pointers.
Providence (15-16, 4-14 Big East) was not a team to be taken too lightly, coming off a comeback win over shaky but still talented UConn.
But the Friars didn’t show much for the balance of the night, shooting abysmally, committing foolish fouls at both ends, and playing out of control in general, though doing enough to stay in the game early and mounting a nice comeback.
No, this was a fitting finish for Notre Dame (21-10, 13-5), which had lost two straight after winning nine in a row.
Tenacious on defense, patient and opportunistic when at its best on offense, and comfortable and confident at home – that’s been the winning combination for a team that hardly resembles the squad that staggered into the heart of conference play at 11-8 in mid-January.
“It’s been a fun ride,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “To finish third in this league is a heck of a thing. I’m very proud of this group. When you get 20 assists and nine turnovers, you know you’re sharing the ball and moving the ball pretty well.”
On Friday night, the Notre Dame family honored all-time great Adrian Dantley, who spoke at halftime after his No. 44 was raised into the Notre Dame Ring of Honor (the students, cheerleaders included, wore jerseys bearing his number and name, in a nice touch; Brey put one on after the game, too).
As the final 2011-2012 game at Notre Dame, it was also a night to honor seniors Scott Martin, who played, and Tim Abromaitis, who did not – and both could conceivably be back for a sixth season if the NCAA approves. (“One more year!” the student chanted as Martin exited with 2:27 to go and the game seemingly in hand, embracing the injured Abromaitis – who was in uniform – and the rest of his teammates. The students also gave Abromaitis a “Thank you, Abro!” chant in the closing moments.)
Whatever may come in the Big East and NCAA tournaments, it’s been quite a ride.
“I’d just like to say thank you to everybody who’s here tonight and been supporting our team for five years,” Abromaitis told the crowd after the game.
“We’ve not had a better ambassador and a more class act than Tim Abromaitis,” Brey said. “He’s going to have a very special professional career. I truly believe he’s an NBA player.”
Martin finished with 11 points and a solid all-around game in the defensive trenches.
“I don’t think any captain has been more challenged,” Brey said of Martin. “He’s leading (early in the year) when he’s not playing well. He continued to mentor these young guys. He’s allowed the young guys to be great.”