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February 18, 2013

A comeback for the ages

PITTSBURGH - Mike Brey spent an inordinate amount of time Sunday polishing up Notre Dame’s offense.

“You could tell the teacher that I am,” Brey said. “We got off to a great start offensively.”

Thirteen minutes and 54 seconds into Monday night’s game at the Petersen Events Center, it kicked in.

Trailing 19-3 after Brey was tagged with a technical foul, No. 25/25 Notre Dame (21-6, 9-5) out-scored No. 20/22 Pittsburgh (20-7, 8-6) 48-23 the rest of the way to claim an unlikely 51-42 victory over the Panthers.

The Irish overcame a 1-of-18 start from the field, including 12 straight misses to start the game. But after falling behind by 16, the Irish closed the first half with a 16-3 run and eventually out-scored the Panthers 48-23 the rest of the way for their sixth victory in eight games since Scott Martin went down with a knee injury.

“I don’t know how much it was pre-meditated,” said Brey of the kick-start his technical gave his team.

“I was just so frustrated because I thought on some of our drives, we were getting bumped a little bit, and (referee John Gaffney) probably could have thrown me out because I stayed after him and he looked away, and I thank him for that. Sometimes that does change the vibe.”

After Pittsburgh started the second half with a pair of buckets to take a 26-19 lead, the Irish out-scored the Panthers 32-16 the rest of the way. Notre Dame out-rebounded the Panthers, 40-25, including 13-to-6 on the offensive glass.

Jack Cooley finished with 13 points and nine rebounds, just missing his seventh straight double-double. He appreciated the help on the backboards. Tom Knight finished with eight rebounds while Pat Connaughton (6), Jerian Grant (5), and Eric Atkins (4) did their part.

Connaughton’s back-to-back three-pointers within 31 seconds of each other brought the Irish to within 19-9, and made the comeback seem possible.

“The way we rebounded today was phenomenal,” Cooley said. “If we can keep that up for the rest of the season - especially against Pittsburgh - to out-rebound them that badly is huge. It just shows how tough our team is.

“Everyone just came in with the mentality of getting boards. It’s so great to see instead of just one outlier. It’s great to see everyone so close together. It makes my life a heckuva lot easier.”

Sparking the offensive attack for the Irish was Jerian Grant, who missed all seven of his shots in the first half and turned the ball over three times before the first TV timeout.

Grant made 4-of-8 shots in the second half, including a three-pointer that bounced off the front of the rim and through the hoop with 14:41 left in the game for Notre Dame’s first lead of the night. He would hit two more three-pointers, and over the final few minutes, what looked like a one-sided loss became a somewhat lopsided victory.

“Guys just said, ‘Keep playing defense,’” said Grant, who would finish with six of Notre Dame’s 15 turnovers. “They only had 19 points. We were getting looks. You’ve just got to keep playing defense, and then we got into transition and got some good looks.”

The impact of Brey’s technical was not lost on the Panthers.

“After the technical, there were like seven or eight straight fouls called on us,” said the Panthers’ leading scorer, Tray Woodall, who finished with a team-high 11 points. “I’m not sure if the refs eased up or what. But after that, the game just changed. We should have kept our composure. But after you hear the whistle a couple of times, you back up.”

Woodall also placed the blame on his team.

“It was just a bad game for us,” Woodall said. “We played selfish. We’re a team that passes the ball and works well with nine or 10 guys. But these rebounding numbers would indicate how selfishly we played tonight.”

The Panthers’ pressure defense forced the Irish into six turnovers by the second TV timeout. But while Notre Dame was limiting the Panthers to just one offensive rebound in the first half, the Irish kept chipping away. By halftime, they had converted just 22.2 percent of their field goal attempts (6-of-27). But the 16-point deficit had been whittled down to 22-19 at the break.

“In this stretch since we lost Scott Martin, we’re now 6-2,” Brey said. “The two games we lost, Syracuse and Providence, we weren’t physical enough on the front line. Now the six games that we’ve won, we have been very physical, and I challenged them to get back to that. Everybody rebounded.”

Pittsburgh missed all eight of its three-point attempts. Pittsburgh scored 23 points over the final 27:08.

“Our defense definitely gave us confidence,” said Atkins, who finished with 10 points and seven assists. “Getting a few stops, getting out running…We really just packed it in on them, and it was really hard for them to score after they got to 19.”

The victory was Notre Dame’s second in a row at the Petersen Events Center. The Irish won 56-51 two years ago. It’s also Notre Dame’s sixth victory over Pittsburgh in the last seven games.

After playing six games in 17 days, including a total of seven overtimes in three of those games, the Irish are happy to have until Sunday before they play host to Cincinnati.

“I’m thrilled for our group,” Brey said. “It seems like we’ve been on the road for a while. To end this trip with a win against these guys here is great. But we need some rest right now. We’ve been on a pretty hard stretch. I’m glad we don’t play until Sunday.”


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