Player of the Game – Ben HansbroughTwo awkward runners through the lane; a spot-up quick-trigger three-pointer; two intuitive offensive rebounds (at waist level as the result of simply running to the open spot opposite the shooter)…and that's just the first 15 minutes.
Ben Hansbrough is a different player in the friendly confines of the Purcell Pavilion, and his 15-point, 9-rebound (3 offensive) effort last night keyed Notre Dame's first win in 15 days. Hansbrough finished 6-10 from the field, hitting the runners mentioned above; a beautiful drive and reverse pivot for a bank shot over the outstretched arm of Panthers shot-blocker Gary McGee, and a determined baseline drive and reverse layup (plus the foul) that helped break Pittsburgh's back during a decisive 17-3 run to start the second half.
Yesterday was the seventh game this season in which Hansbrough flirted with a double-double (he has two on the year) and the penetrating senior has come close to notching the program's second ever triple-double on three occasions in Big East play. Ranked sixth nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio, Hansbrough finished with four dimes and three turnovers…numbers that will likely repeat over the last three contests vs. solid defensive teams and minus the presence of the team's best finisher.
As Hansbrough goes offensively, so go the Irish. He lessens the duties of point guard Tory Jackson; adds another deadeye presence behind the arc (just under 45% for the season); and adds a toughness and chippie approach that will continue to benefit the team down the home stretch.
Hansbrough finds a way to get into the lane – while maintaining his court presence – better than any Irish player since Chris Thomas.
High Efficiency – Tim AbromaitisBetter than 49 percent from beyond the arc. Nearly 53 percent from the field overall. Over 88 percent from the charity stripe. That'd be a heck of a game for any Big East player.
Of course, those are Tim Abromaitis' numbers on the season to date, ranking him as (easily) the nation's most efficient shooter and the league's (if not the country's) biggest surprise and most improved player. Abro led the Irish with 17 points, hitting each of his four free throws (both trips to the foul line were a result of backdoor cuts by Notre Dame's man in motion) and shooting 5-9 from the field with a 3-5 effort from long range. He even showed his human side, missing consecutive open three-point buckets following Notre Dame's early second half barrage.
The redshirt-junior added five boards (2 offensive) in 38 minutes and maintained his composure despite constant grabbing by Panthers defensive stopper Jermaine Dixon and physical play of Pittsburgh sub J.J. Richardson (who was obviously sent in to bang Abromaitis when he ventured through the lane).
I've mentioned it before, but if Abro can add a mid-range game (pull-up jumper) to his arsenal for next season he'll be an unstoppable college scorer.
He'll Rest in April – Tory JacksonTwo games, 33 points, 14 assists (8 turnovers), 88 minutes of floor time…0 seconds of rest. Senior point guard Tory Jackson has played 283 of Notre Dame's last 290 game minutes and unfortunately, the Irish have needed every last second of that herculean effort to compete and fight for a 3-4 W-L record in that span.
Last night, Jackson helped limit Panthers leading scorer Ashton Gibbs to 11 points and nine field goal attempts. The tri-captain and team leader finished with seven assists and 14 points, the most important of which may have occurred on a half-ending fadeaway jumper that extended the Irish lead to eight at intermission and killed the Panthers late-half momentum entering the locker room.
The program's second all-time assist leader consistently beat the shot-clock buzzer, finding Abromaitis for a baseline layup, Carleton Scott for two open three-point buckets and Tyrone Nash for an easy look in the lane while drilling an open three-pointer of his own on a post-feed from Nash.
The Irish will require and encore performance of Jackson's 3 of 5 effort from beyond the arc last night in order to walk out of D.C. with a win Saturday vs. No. 11 Georgetown. He's knocked down 11 of his last 20 offerings from long range since Harangody's season-altering knee injury.
Late Bloomer – Tyrone NashSo, about those useless nine minutes of 2008 Big East court time…
Nash burned a potential redshirt and fifth season of eligibility for 2011-12 with garbage time minutes for a (relatively) deep 2007-08 squad (but hey, he did squeeze off an errant three-pointer in a 26-point blowout at Seton Hall, so not all is lost).
The crowd favorite (when he wasn't used as bench ballast) of the '09 Big East season has developed into a legitimate college post player in this, his junior year. Nash has hit for double figures in three of his last four and eight conference games overall. Last night marked the first contest over the team's last eight outings in which Nash wasn't saddled with a fourth (or fifth) foul, committing just one despite a physical assignment vs. Panthers center Gary McGee.
Gaining confidence with each outing, Nash finished with 13 points and 7 rebounds vs. Pittsburgh and connected on a personal best 7 of 8 free throw attempts – a key improvement to his game as the 6'8" forward has consistently drawn fouls in the low post this season.
Nash (who considers himself a point guard at heart) delivered three pretty assists last night, one in transition and two others from the low block, and with Harangody out, serves as the team's only offensive post presence. He'll receive help from Jack Cooley and Carleton Scott (and possibly Mike Broghammer) defensively, but the lefty is Notre Dame's only hope as a post-scorer, and more important, the facilitator of an inside-out game that allows the Irish three-point shooters space on the perimeter.
Daggers – Carleton ScottOn Basketball Media Day back in October, Irish head coach Mike Brey jokingly offered that Carleton Scott was a bit enamored with his three-point shooting skills. Brey added that Scott did indeed have a nice stroke, but shot selection was still an issue.
Last night, the redshirt-junior from San Antonio had no choice but to fire consecutive three-point shots with the clock winding down. He nailed both…on the same play…from the exact same spot, to key Notre Dame's game-changing 17-3 run.
The buckets marked the only two field goals for Scott last night, but the athletic forward played his second straight solid floor game in a starting role, adding four rebounds, two blocked shots, an assist (on a Hansbrough three-ball), a steal and two more pass deflections.
Scott's numbers on the backboard would likely be more impressive with some added bulk to his frame. Continued focus on strength training is necessary in order for the program's best leaper to make a consistent impact in his final two seasons.
Insert Player, Plug-in Crowd – Jack CooleyYeah, there's no way five minutes of Cooley could have helped this team in losses to Loyola Marymount, Cincinnati, Rutgers, St. John's…
For the second consecutive outing, Notre Dame's 6'9" 245-pound freshman bumped, banged, and bruised his way into quality minutes off the Irish wasteland, more commonly referred to in basketball parlance as a "bench."
He finished with four boards (two offensive), two blocks, and three fouls (two of them of needless – an issue going forward) in 13 minutes of high-energy basketball. The fan favorite also provided the best 30-second segment of the evening, blocking a shot on the weak side, diving for (and recovering) a loose ball that saved a fast break in the other direction, and finally wrestling a traffic rebound to the ground to maintain possession for the Irish.
The crowd cheered; the team captain punched the freshman's chest in celebration, and the entire team was fired up by the effort.
It's annoying and obvious that Cooley's presence (or Mike Broghammer's) would have helped the Irish over the course of the season.
Early Contribution – Jonathan PeoplesFive first-half minutes and a spot-up three-pointer from the wing during an 8-0 Irish run that extended the lead to 20-12 midway through the first half.
The senior didn't see action in the second half, though I think we'll see a bit more of Peoples and the presence of a third guard defensively on Saturday in enemy territory.
Spot Duty – Mike BroghammerThree first half minutes, plenty of cheers and anticipation from the crowd, and a lefty-jump hook left short. Broghammer is another player than lends a physical presence and hustle points to a squad that needs both, but in Brey's defense last night, the Irish had those elements in ample supply.
Nash, Scott and Cooley deserved the bulk of the minutes last night and the Irish can't afford to sit Abromaitis for long with Harangody sidelined.
Keeping the freshman in the fold this weekend (perhaps another 3-5 minutes depending on his level of execution) is key as his body will be needed vs. UConn's massive front line next Wednesday.
DNP-CD – Joey BrooksI'm not sure why Brooks has fallen out of favor over the last 10 days but its relevant to point out that Peoples only received five minutes off the pine last night as well. Hansbrough, Jackson and Abromaitis will play 37-plus minutes through the end of the season and the Cooley/Nash/Scott trio was necessary to combat the Panthers physical presence last night.
On the Verge – Home Court AtmosphereI'll be blunt to start: Notre Dame lost the support of its home crowd midway through the Big East season (it started late last season, especially after the blowout loss to Villanova). The students stopped showing up en masse; the local fan-base stayed away more so than at any point since at least the final season of the Chris Thomas era, and consistent growns replaced blind faith and cheers in the stands.
That was the atmosphere at the start of the evening last night, but the short-handed home team's energy and spirit won over the attendees over the course of the contest (and the student-body filled in a bit, upon second glance).
A win vs. Georgetown Saturday would likely set up a packed house next Wednesday vs. Connecticut for what will be an NCAA elimination game and the final home game for Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson.
The program could use a weekend win and momentum heading into the final week of the regular season.