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February 20, 2013

Coming back, one step at a time

The Petersen Events Center is no place for the timid.

The Pittsburgh students line one end zone, the entire length of the court on one side, and most of the other end zone. The band is loud, the crowd is enthusiastic, and, perhaps more than anything, the Panthers are accustomed to winning there.

In the previous 199 games at the Petersen Events Center, the Pittsburgh had won 178 and lost 21. Although their home invincibility had wavered since last season, a game against the Irish in the Petersen Events Center looked to be just what the Panthers needed.

Pittsburgh was returning home from a double-digit loss at Marquette Saturday. The Panthers were looking forward to some home cooking against an Irish team that was blown out by 17 points at Providence.

Two years ago, Notre Dame came into Petersen Events Center and recorded a 56-51 victory. Monday night, for the first 14 minutes of the game, it looked as if the Irish wouldn't reach double figures by halftime.

Then, over the final 27:08, the Irish out-scored Pittsburgh, 48-23, and out-rebounded the Panthers, 40-25, for the game.

"We are a mature team," said Jerian Grant, who missed all seven field-goal attempts in the first half, but converted 4-of-8 in the second half - including three three-pointers - in Notre Dame's 51-42 victory.

"We moved on from the Providence game. In the Big East, once you take a loss, you have to bounce back. I think we did that pretty well tonight."

Notre Dame missed its first 12 shots and 17 of its first 18 to fall behind 19-3 with 7:08 left in the first half after Tray Woodall converted two free throws as a result of a Mike Brey technical.

Brey was willing to try anything, including irrationality, during the second-to-last TV timeout of the first half.

"I didn't talk to (the team) much because I was a raving lunatic through most of the timeout after the technical," Brey said.

But the impact of Brey's emotion was not lost on the players.

"We just knew coach had our back," Grant said. "We always knew that he knew we had a chance. Down 19-3, we still could play defense and get back in the game."

The Panthers would score just three more points the rest of the half, and then a mere 20 in the second half, which was just one more point than Notre Dame scored during it's star-crossed first half.

"The one thing I kept telling them was, 'Look, we are defending pretty well. Just hang in there. We're only giving them one shot. We're going to get a spurt here,'" Brey said.

The Irish needed a jump-start offensively, and Pat Connaughton provided it. Back-to-back threes within 31 seconds of one another suddenly made it a 19-9 game.

"Once Pat knocked in those two threes, we knew we were going to be able to get back in this game," said Jack Cooley, who finished with 13 points and nine rebounds. "It was late in the half and they only had 19. We were 1-for-18 and that's just dismal shooting. We weren't going to keep shooting that poorly. We knew we had a run in us."

The atmosphere in the Petersen Events Center began to shift. With each Panther miss - they were just 8-of-23 (.348) from the field in the first half themselves - the angst in the home crowd's moans became evident.

"I was just trying to keep our guys fired up because that felt like we tied it quite frankly," said Brey of his emotion following Connaughton's rapid-fire three-pointers to pull the Irish to within 10.

"The climate changed in the building. The vibe changed. Our body language changed, and we were able to get a few things offensively that kind of set a tone for us in the second half to have some offensive confidence."

The Irish would take the lead at the 14:41 mark of the second half when a three-point attempt by Grant from the left of the circle hit the front of the rim and then slid through the rim for a 29-28 Notre Dame lead. Pittsburgh would regain the lead moments later. But when Eric Atkins scored on a drive to the bucket with 10:53 left, the Irish had the lead for good.

"You just keep playing," said Atkins of Notre Dame's 1-of-18 shooting start. "We were getting some good looks. We missed some easy lay-ups. We just kept saying that we've got to keep guarding them. We just really started to buckle down. I think our defense gave us confidence."

The more the Irish struggled offensively in the first half, the better their defense on the Panthers. Pittsburgh's shooting in the second half didn't improve. In fact, they duplicated their 8-of-23 shooting in the second half while the Irish shot a sizzling 12-of-20 (.600), including 4-of-6 from three-point range. Three were by Grant.

"Once I hit that three, my confidence was back and the team was really hyped because we finally got a lead," Grant said.

Atkins' driving lay-up put the Irish up, 33-32. Tom Knight hit a 17-foot jumper from the corner. After James Robinson connected on a jump shot, the Irish would score the next eight points on a three-pointer by Grant, a Cooley basket with an assist from Grant, and another three-pointer by Grant at the 4:46 mark that suddenly gave the Irish a nine-point bulge.

"We got some stuff in transition," Brey said. "Once we got a couple in transition, you got a deep breath. And then Jerian was really able to get off ball screens and do stuff.

"Jerian and Eric, after the first 10 minutes, were fabulous. In the second half, they controlled the tempo. Then in the last seven minutes we were burning and getting great stuff at the end of the clock."

The fact that the Panthers missed all eight of their three-point attempts was no coincidence. Beyond Woodall and Lamar Patterson, the Panthers don't have consistent outside firepower, and Woodall missed all four of his attempts and Patterson didn't attempt one.

"We did a good job scouting them, knowing who we could help off of," Atkins said. "I always had the guy that wasn't the best three-point shooter, so I could dig around a little bit. I stayed in the lane when Woodall would get in there. We never left Woodall or Patterson, but everybody else (we could), and we could really pack the lane in and make it tough for their bigs to get an easy look.

"It was really hard for them to score after they got to 19, and that really gave us confidence to get on a run."

Cooley said the Irish wiped the slate clean after the loss to Providence.

"Once you lose the first one, there's nothing you can do but turn to the second one," Cooley philosophized. "To handle it the way we did and with that much adversity is huge."

One shot at a time, one possession at a time, one victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.


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