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January 27, 2007NOTRE DAME, Ind.-Revenge didn't have long to simmer.
Just 10 days after Villanova thumped Notre Dame by 15 in Philadelphia, the 22nd-ranked Fighting Irish of Notre Dame scratched and clawed their way to a hard-fought 66-63 victory over the Wildcats.
It wasn't pretty. In fact, it was typical Big East basketball in the second half as the referees whistled 32 fouls after the intermission.
"I think that was a step forward for us because we haven't had to muck one out like that," said Irish head coach Mike Brey. "We've had pretty games here. We'd score 84 and everyone gets to score and we'd have 23 assists and everybody's having fun
"Not tonight. It was a wrestling match at times."
Little-used sophomore Ryan Ayers nailed a three-pointer with 2:28 to pull the Irish even at 60-60. Less than a minute later, Ayers was fouled on a three-point shot. He hit two of three free throws and the Irish never trailed again, although it did get a bit harrowing.
Notre Dame built their lead up to 66-60 with 38.7 seconds remaining, and then had to hold on as missed free throws allowed Villanova two game-tying three-point attempts with under 10 seconds remaining.
Zach Hillesland missed two free throws with 1.3 seconds remaining, but Villanova only had time for a desperation heave by Curtis Sumpter at that point.
"I'm so proud of him," said Brey of Ayers. "Here's a guy who didn't play against St. John's and he lost his roommate (Kyle McAlarney) Monday, too. It was a tough week for Ryan Ayers.
"But that could be a real coming out party for him. We've kind of been waiting on him to do something like that."
Notre Dame improved to 17-4 overall and 5-3 in the Big East. Villanova dropped to 14-6 overall and 3-4 in conference play.
"I don't think (Notre Dame's success) is surprising to any of the coaches in our league or anyone who played them last year in all those close games," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright.
"We came here last year saying, 'You know, we don't want to see them again. They're probably going to get it going the next game.' We thought they were going to be good this year."
Villanova is good too, and the Wildcats played like it most of the afternoon as they built an eight-point lead in the first half and a seven-point advantage as late as the 7:13 mark of the second half.
Freshman point guard Scottie Reynolds finished with 19 points, but was held to just 5-of-14 shooting. Dante Cunningham, Mike Nardi and Curtis Sumpter each had 11 points for the Wildcats.
The scrappy Irish kept battling behind the three-point shooting of Colin Falls, the veteran-like play of freshman point guard Tory Jackson, and the underneath dirty work of senior Rob Kurz and freshman Luke Harangody.
Falls finished with a game-high 23 points, including 3-of-7 from three-point range and 8-of-9 from the free-throw line.
Jackson played 36 gritty minutes, and although he missed all five of his shots from the field, he converted all four of his free throws, dished out four assists, snagged three rebounds and had just one turnover. It was Jackson who shadowed Reynolds 10 days after Reynolds scored a career-high 27 points against the Irish.
Kurz scored 10 points and grabbed 10 rebounds while Harangody had seven boards.
The victory was Notre Dame 17th straight on the Joyce Center floor, the third longest in Irish history.
The first half turned into a physical, no-harm-no-foul battle as the referee crew of Tim Higgins, Bernard Clinton, and John Gaffney showed reluctance to blow the whistle. Villanova was not called for a foul until the 10:00 mark of the first half.
Both teams struggled shooting the basketball in the first half amidst the physical tussle. Villanova converted just 7-of-24 field goal attempts (29.2 percent) while the Irish managed just 9-of-33 (27.2 percent). The two teams also combined for just 4-of-19 from three-point range.
"Their defense is so fast and physical and they're very quick to the ball," Brey said. "You don't really run your offense against them. You just try and make two or three passes, hit the open man, and hope to make the right play.
"I'm glad we're done with them. We don't play them a third time. We'll probably play them in the tournament knowing my luck."
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