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February 10, 2013

Force fits functional

Images by Matt Cashore

Jack Swarbrick couldn't resist after watching Notre Dame upset Louisville in five overtimes, not just the longest basketball game in Irish hoops history, but the longest in Big East regular season history too.

So as the athletics director walked alongside Mike Brey after Saturday night had turned into Sunday morning, he joked he'd finally figured out what would drive the head coach to turn to his bench.

"That's the first thing he said," Brey laughed while setting the record for his latest postgame press conference.

Lost in the play-by-play insanity of how Notre Dame upset Louisville in a game that lasted longer than most Irish football games and included 26 lead changes was the fact the Irish did it with a last-resort lineup of Zach Auguste and Garrick Sherman, plus a hobbled Pat Connaughton and gassed Eric Atkins.

Connaughton rolled his right ankle late in the first half and wasn't sure he'd be able to return until adrenaline took over midway through the second half. He finished with 16 points, 14 boards and seven assists, just short of a triple-double. Atkins tied the school record with 60 minutes played.

The win represented Notre Dame's best of the season and the program's first quality victory since knee pain shut down Scott Martin. That Notre Dame played the final seven minutes of regulation and all five overtimes without Jack Cooley, who'd fouled out, doubled the degree of difficulty.

"It's a different team," said Jerian Grant, whose 12 points in the final 45 seconds of regulation made the marathon possible. "With Scott out we've got two bigs. Now we've got four bigs with Zach and Sherm. They took over in overtime. Just knowing that we have a new team, we know we have a great team."

Auguste finished with eight points and three rebounds and became the fourth Irish player to foul out, although he waited until the final minute of the fifth overtime to do it. His 36 minutes played are more than in Notre Dame's other 10 Big East games combined.

Sherman's production was even more stunning. He was a DNP in four of the previous six games and didn't get off the bench in regulation. He played 22 minutes in the overtimes and finished with 17 points and six rebounds.

"To be able to do what (Sherman) did, I don't think there's another player in the country that can honestly do that. I don't think you can find one," Cooley said. "It just shows the determination that he has."

The Sherman rejuvenation could expand Notre Dame's bench with Auguste also coming on. Since Martin went down Brey has turned to two bigs, starting Tom Knight. That project will continue with Notre Dame above water in the Big East, one of four teams with four losses.

A loss to Louisville could have pushed Notre Dame into the NCAA tournament bubble discussion. The win kept the Irish in the conference championship race.

"Something like this you can certainly build on," Brey said. "Hopefully build our confidence and our toughness and never feel we're out of it. For Zach, Sherm, to be in there to do that for us in the stretch I think is really big for us."

A season that hasn't gone to plan broke in Notre Dame's favor last night. Brey and his players saw the win as a potential February launching pad. Assuming their legs aren't shot after playing 325 collective minutes of basketball, it can be.

"This does a lot," Connaughton said. "You look at that game, Jerian had the best comeback I've ever seen in my life, yesterday. Then he (fouls) out, but with what he did to send that game to overtime, we couldn't lose after that. There was no way. We couldn't let that happen.

"And we didn't."

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