ROSEMONT, Ill.—Getting the lead is no problem; holding onto it has become a bit of an issue.
After cruising to a 60-32 lead by scoring 13 of the first 14 second-half points, No. 17 Notre Dame (22-6, 12-4) saw its advantage dwindle to seven with 3:32 remaining before holding off DePaul, 98-91.
"You knew a run was coming from them," said Irish head coach Mike Brey. "I'm proud of our guys. We showed poise. We had some big offensive possessions and some key shots and we made free throws that really helped us down the stretch."
The victory gives the Irish 12 conference victories for the first time in their 13 years in the Big East, and also clinches a first-round bye in the Big East tournament. The Irish can finish no worse than fourth place in the conference.
"Two years in a row in this league, to clinch a bye...I think that's four times in eight years that we've done that," Brey said.
DePaul (10-18, 5-11) has now lost five straight and nine of its last 10.
Notre Dame shot 60 percent in the second half and 55.9 percent for the game. But after taking a 28-point lead just 2:49 into the second half, the Blue Demons scored 59 points over the final 17:11 to make it interesting.
"Anybody can score 90 on us if we can have a hundred," Brey quipped. "That would be fine with me.
"You can't look at us like your usual basketball team. Because we score the ball the way we do and we get up like that, we really try to take away the three-point line, so it leaves you exposed to give up some twos. I'm so confident that we're going to score the ball on the other end."
Luke Harangody scored 24 points in just 26 minutes of action. Brey benched Harangody down the stretch as he looked for perimeter defense to defend against DePaul's three-point shooting. It didn't help much as freshman Dar Tucker made 6-of-9 three-pointers—including a banker from the top of the key—to finish with a game-high 28 points.
When Tucker wasn't pulling the Blue Demons back into the game from the outside, it was freshman big man Mac Koshwal scoring from the inside and the foul line, finishing with 23 points.
Asked what would happen to his team if it didn't make the shots down the stretch, Brey smirked, "We probably won't win."
Notre Dame hit plenty of shots. After a tough start by Rob Kurz—prompting Brey to sit Kurz briefly—the lone Irish senior finished with 21 points.
"He couldn't get his hands (on the ball). He was stripped a couple of times...It was weird," said Brey of Kurz's slow start. "But he's so mentally tough."
"When you start bad, you've just got to regroup," Kurz said. "I was a little frustrated, but I knew I would get my opportunity and I just tried to make the most of it."
Zeller made 5-of-6 from the field—3-of-4 from beyond the three-point line to go with two tip-ins for 13 points in just 10 minutes.
Ayers also chipped in with nine points off the bench on 3-of-3 shooting from three-point range. Sophomore Jonathan Peoples missed all three of his shots, but dished out five assists and grabbed three rebounds.
"Right now, I think every shot Ryan Ayers takes is going in," Brey said. "He's just feeling so good. Zeller gave us unbelievable minutes. Peoples gave us great minutes. Our bench gave us a great lift."
"It feels good that I've been able to get in a rhythm as of late," said Ayers, who scored a career-high 17 points three days earlier at Louisville. "Me, Luke and Jon want to be catalysts off the bench. Bring some energy, bring some offense, and be tough on the defensive end."
The Irish finished with a remarkable 27 assists—one shy of their season high set in the opening game of the season versus Long Island. Any concerns about a hangover from the loss to Louisville were abated early as the Irish took a 20-11 lead on a 10-0 run.
The Blue Demons responded with a 7-0 run of their own to tighten things up midway through the first half. But after DePaul closed to four points (28-24) with 7:31 left in the half, the Irish would out-score DePaul 19-7 the rest of the half, including a three-pointer by Ayers with 3.7 seconds remaining to give Notre Dame a 47-31 halftime lead.
"We got off to a great start," Brey said. "We were excited to play and I told them what we were playing for after what happened in Milwaukee yesterday. I let them know we had a chance to secure a bye today. I think that excited them when they knew we could earn that today."
Kyle McAlarney finished with 13 points on 3-of-8 shooting from three-point range. Notre Dame led by 16 at halftime despite the fact that McAlarney missed five of his first six from beyond the arc.
Notre Dame reached the 12-victory mark in the Big East in just 16 games with two to spare.
"Before the season, no, February 1, yes," said Brey, when asked if he thought this team would eclipse the school's high-water mark for Big East victories in a season.
"We were showing signs that we could be special and have some special qualities about us. We started talking about playing for a bye February 1 because you just felt that was a realistic thing to talk about."