NEW YORK – The class with the most wins over a four-year period in the history of the Notre Dame basketball program concluded its final Big East Tournament in the same manner it ended its first – with a dramatic comeback over a favored opponent and a potential game-winning three-point shot bouncing squarely off the front rim near the final gun.
West Virginia ended Notre Dame’s six-game winning streak Friday night at Madison Square Garden, 53-51.
The Irish trailed for the final 28:17 of the contest, falling behind by as many as 10 in the second half before staging a patient rally in the final five minutes.
The Mountaineers staved off defeat thanks mainly to the efforts of senior Da’Sean Butler. The hot-shooting swingman scored a game-high 24 points on what began as an endless series of feathery jump shots vs. a host of Irish defenders.
Butler however, was held in check over the game’s final 12 minutes thanks to the denial defensive efforts of Irish junior forward Tyrone Nash, who limited the previously unstoppable scorer to 3 points over a 12-minute span. Butler did not connect on a field goal after the 12:01 mark of the second half.
“We did a better job on Butler (late),” noted Irish head coach Mike Brey. “We got Ty Nah on him and that gave us a chance to have a chance to win the game.
“They’re really good,” he continued of the Mountaineers. “They’re difficult to defend; are physical, and they take away space in the half-court with their length.”
Nearly Seven Straight
Facing a 46-38 deficit at the 5:11 mark, the Irish clawed back behind the efforts of Ben Hansbrough. The senior accounted for 10 of Notre Dame’s final 13 points, first hitting Tim Abromaitis for a no-look layup off penetration and later hitting back-to-back three-pointers, the latter a 25-foot bomb from the left wing to cut the Mountaineers lead to three, 48-45.
Two Tory Jackson free throws brought the Irish to within one but West Virgina responded, scoring the next four points on a Joe Mazzulla layup and two Kevin Jones free throws to push the lead back to five, 52-47.
Hansbrough struck again, converting a beautiful reverse layup after blowing by 6’9” forward Devin Ebanks to trim the lead to three with 1:35 remaining.
Butler knocked down one of two free throws with just over a minute remaining but the Irish refused to fold as Hansbrough drew another foul in penetration and knocked down a pair of freebies to put the Irish in position to steal the contest, trailing 53-51 with 47 seconds remaining.
As they had for the duration of the six-game winning streak, Notre Dame came up with a final defensive stop, and Luke Harangody rebounded a deep Butler miss with 11 seconds remaining.
Jackson took an outlet from Harangody and pushed the ball down the floor, bu this pull-up jumper from well beyond the arc bounced squarely off the front of the rim. The Irish briefly had control of the loose ball before Mountaineers forward Wellington Smith wrestled the ball away from Tyrone Nash as time expired.
“I thought it was a good shot when I let it go,” Jackson admitted post game. “We’re not going to dwell on it though. You live and learn. We had a heck of a run and we just have to make another coming up.
Jackson pulled up for the potential game-winner largely because the defense dropped back upon his initial full-speed approach as the senior reached the three-point stripe.
“Ya,” Jackson stated agreeing with the post-game observation. “When he dropped off like that it made me decide to take the wide open shot. It just didn’t go down.”
The ending was reminiscent of Jackson's freshman season when former Irish guard Russell Carter missed a potential game-winning three-pointer from the top of the key in the 2007 Big East semi's as the Irish fell to Georgetown, 82-80.
West Virginia will take on Georgetown, 18-point victors in the evening’s opening contest vs. Marquette, in tomorrow’s Championship game. Tip-off is set for 9 pm (ET).
“I’m proud of our group,” Brey understated after the defeat. “We made a run at it and to have a shot to win it…it was a weird game because we were in a hole, but to have a look to win the game was pretty (good situation).”
Hansbrough led the Irish with 17 points. Harangody was the only other Notre Dame player in double figures, finishing with 10 points in 26 minutes off the bench.
The Irish struggled throughout the evening, hitting just 34 percent of their field goal attempts including a 31 percent effort from long range.
West Virginia missed 16 of 19 three-point shots but managed to connect on 48 percent from the field overall. The Mountaineers out-rebounded the Irish 37-22 though held just a 12-11 edge in second chance points.
Notre Dame will play either next Thursday or Friday in the first round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament. Site, game time, and opponent will be determined Sunday evening.
Note: IrishEyes will have more on Notre Dame’s semifinal loss on Saturday.