Not much was expected out of Notre Dame this season. Not after all the talent they lost from a year ago. Turns out, there might be enough talent left to make some noise, after all.
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Carleton Scott and Eric Atkins scored 12 points apiece, leading Notre Dame past Wisconsin 58-51 on Sunday night to claim the Old Spice Classic championship.
The Irish (7-0) scored 15 straight points in the final four minutes to pull away, overcoming an 11-point second-half deficit to go home with a huge tournament victory for a revamped team suddenly beaming with confidence.
”I think we showed a lot of people out there that we still have some fight in us,” said Tim Abromaitis, who had 10 points and nine rebounds for the Irish and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
Notre Dame came through when it counted most.
Ben Hansbrough stripped Jordan Taylor and converted a 3-point play on the other end over Taylor with 19 seconds remaining to highlight Notre Dame’s run. The Irish shot free throws the rest of the way, finishing 20 for 25 from the stripe to beat a pesky Wisconsin team.
Jon Leuer had 19 points and Taylor had 14 points for the Badgers (4-2) before fouling out on Hansbrough’s layup.
”They had some guys that made timely baskets and timely free throws, and that’s how you win those kind of grinders,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. ”And both our teams will be in more of them before the season’s out.”
The Irish might already be considered overachievers.
With mainstays Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson gone, the burden fell upon seniors Hansbrough, Scott and Tyrone Nash and grad student Abromaitis – all back from a 23-win team last year that lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Old Dominion, but not exactly the guys who carried the load.
They have so far this season.
Notre Dame won its third in-season tournament title in 11 seasons under coach Mike Brey. The 7-0 mark also matched the 2001-02 team for Brey’s best start at Notre Dame.
”I learned something about my team that I knew I would down here,” Brey said. ”You hope to learn while you’re winning, certainly that’s helpful. But for us right now, this team is very confident.”
The Badgers came into the tournament reeling from a loss to UNLV that likely cost them a spot in the Top 25 rankings. All they did was beat Manhattan and Boston College by double-digits before taking on Notre Dame in the final.
Wisconsin’s frontline bullied and bruised an undersized Irish team early. The Badgers went ahead by eight points in the first half, building enough cushion to overcome some shooting lapses.
At least for a while.
Notre Dame began sitting in its zone defense and keeping Wisconsin on the perimeter. The move paid off, and the Irish scored the last 11 points of the half to take a 22-19 lead at the break.
Leuer, Taylor and Tim Jarmusz hit consecutive 3-pointers to highlight a 9-0 Wisconsin spurt in the second half to eventually go ahead by 11 points. The last came from Taylor, who waived his hands to the Badgers’ faithful and chest bumped several teammates all the way to the bench during a timeout.
The celebration was premature.
”We just made too many mistakes down the stretch, and they made a lot of hustle plays,” Leuer said.
A gritty Notre Dame found its rhythm and clamped down defensively. Wisconsin was smothered at both ends of the court, and its frustrations mounted when Abromaitis grabbed Scott Martin’s missed free throw for a put-back layup that gave Notre Dame a 50-48 lead with 1:58 left.
They never trailed again.
In the end, it was an Irish team not expected to steal any spotlights this season who were the ones cutting down the nets and toasting a title trophy while streams of confetti flew.
Kind of like they do in March.
Now making the NCAA tournament isn’t unrealistic at all. After victories over Thanksgiving against Georgia, California and Wisconsin, they’ve already made a strong case.
”Certainly they’re great wins,” Brey said. ”We should have a couple resume wins.”