Notre Dame's improbable win gives Mike Brey a proper home farewell
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It meant little to Notre Dame’s current standing in the college basketball world.
But it meant the world to a downtrodden team battling to give their exiting coach one more magical moment in a place that had produced many over his 23 years.
Purcell Pavilion was rocking like the good old days Wednesday with a crowd of 8,582 on hand — including many former players — there to pay tribute to head coach Mike Brey, who was working the Purcell sidelines one last time.
What they got was a special prize no one saw coming, the 11-19 Irish (3-16 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) stunning No. 25 and ACC first-place Pittsburgh, 88-81. It matched the highest point total of the season for ND, and they did it against a team allowing 69 a game.
And Notre Dame’s all-time winningest coach got victory No. 483.
“We've been pretty good here and there's great memories of games here,” said Brey in an on-court farewell to fans and a radio audience listening in after his club stopped a seven-game losing skid.
He mentioned the 45-game home winning streak during his tenure and added, “I don't know how many people have brought up to me the five-overtime game to Louisville (2013), which was a classic. … And I'm thrilled that we have this memory as well in my last game here.”
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It was hardly a classic, mostly a free-throw shooting fest, but no one expected this outcome, not the way the season has slipped away from the Irish.
But on an emotional senior night, when six grad students were honored and played, there were just enough answers to hold off the Panthers (21-9, 14-5) in a physical battle that featured 46 fouls, a couple of technical fouls included, and enough bad blood at the end to interrupt the postgame handshake line. However, enough cool heads intervened to prevent anything from getting out of hand.
The Irish got a season-high, 20-point performance from grad student Marcus Hammond (8-for-11 from field, 4-for-6 on 3s) who was “limited” to 34 minutes because of foul trouble, and 20 from Cormac Ryan who was 6-for-17 and 2-for-9. Hammond had missed the last game and a half with a toe injury.
Brey has talked all season about his club needing just a little luck to get over the hump in close games.
It came in the form of Pittsburgh’s 20-for-36 performance from the free throw line — a 55.6% showing by a team that was shooting 77.1% coming in.
It gave the Irish a chance to keep pace and they did it mostly from the line going 26-for-31 — 84%.
Notre Dame generally doesn’t foul, ranking 13th-fewest in the country at 13.9 fouls a game, and it finished with 25. Pittsburgh averages 16 and had 21, to provide some indication of the way the game was officiated.
Less than three minutes into the game, Pittsburgh’s Blake Hinson was hit with a tech for an unsportsmanlike action.
The second came from the Pitt bench with 11:49 to play. The call against head coach Jeff Capel, who Mike Brey helped recruit to Duke in the 1990s, led to Notre Dame’s largest lead at 20 (61-41) with 11:49 to play.
It was a slog most of the rest of the way with constant play stoppages. Sixteen of the next 27 points for ND came from the line. Thirteen of Pitt’s 40 points over the last 11 minutes came from the line.
It got dicey down the stretch because of attrition. Dane Goodwin (12 points) fouled out with 5:23 to play and Ven-Allen Lubin (eight points, six rebounds in 17 minutes) left 34 seconds later with his fifth foul.
A usually short Irish bench was already thin when 11-point scorer JJ Starling couldn’t suit up because of a knee injury.
“What an unbelievable night,” Brey said. “Pitt’s really good and you know, we defended them pretty much all night … and it was neat to feel this atmosphere in here one last time. Our crowd is great. “
Pittsburgh came in on a roll, ranked for the first time since 2016. It had won two straight and eight of its last nine, led by a balanced offense averaging 75.9 points a game.
The Irish got on top 42-28 by halftime because of seven made free throws and seven made 3s in 15 attempts. They were at 52% from the field in the first half and stayed in control by generally keeping up the pace, finishing at 49%.
All that good production was key when late defensive breakdowns let the Panthers back in.
ND’s Trey Wertz (14 points, 8-for-8 free throws) hit two free throws for an 84-74 lead with 1:05 to go but the next two Irish possessions produced zero points after grad student Robby Carmody, who had played all of 7:43 this season coming into the game, missed a couple free throws and then was charged with a turnover.
Jamarius Burton (19 points) hit a well-guarded 3-pointer off the turnover with 38 seconds to play to get Pitt within 84-79, but Wertz let the crowd breathe again with a couple more made free throws.
Burton missed a 3 the next time down and after the Irish yielded their 16th offensive rebound of the night, Burton watched his driving layup roll off the rim with 21 seconds to go.
Nate Laszewski (14 points) grabbed the rebound and Ryan got behind the defense. He took a pass from Wertz for a dunk, his second of the game, and an 88-79 lead to finally put it away.
“It was neat for our seniors to finish like that,” Brey said.
The reaction by the Irish was somewhat muted, more relief than pure joy because this is the way it was supposed to be all season with a team of veterans and two highly rated freshmen.
No matter, it will provide some consolation with one more regular-season game remaining at Clemson Saturday (8 p.m. ET), before next week’s ACC tournament.
There were no tears from Brey in front of the crowd. He was just happy to head off into the night toward the Linebacker Lounge — his first visit there since coming to campus — with a lot of fans, friends and former players in tow.
His final message to fans?
“We may have some lost games at times, but we’ve never lost a party.”
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