by Kevin O'Neill
A 10-point halftime lead quickly became a second half blowout as the Fighting Irish conducted a halfcourt offense clinic en route to a 89-51 victory. Ben Hansbrough scored 23 points to lead Notre Dame in the scoring column, but all five starters excelled. Carleton Scott scored 18 points, secured 6 rebounds, and blocked 4 shots. Tim Abromaites had 17 points and 6 rebounds, Scott Martin added 11 points, and Ty Nash keyed the rally that settled the game.
Dion Dixon led the Bearcats with 15 points, and Yancey Gates followed his 25-point performance against USF with 12 tonight. Gates also corralled 9 rebounds and blocked 3 shots.
The story of the game was ND’s passing. The Irish had 22 assists, and 7 of them came in the first nine minutes of the second half when they ran to a 23-point lead. Ty Nash got Gates’ attention from the post on Notre Dame’s first two possessions of the second half. He drove for a basket the first time and was fouled on his drive the second time. Then Irish head coach Mike Brey had Nash take the ball to the top of the key, and Gates followed.
Notre Dame’s shooters were hot in the first half, 7 of 11 from three point range after a 1 for 5 start; so Cincinnati had no intention of giving them open looks. With Gates covering Nash away from the basket, the outside shooters cut to the basket for layups; and the ball found the open man time after time. By the media timeout with 10:58 to play, the Irish had a 66-43 lead. The only remaining question was the final score.
The first half wasn’t so easy. The Irish had a 13-5 lead at the first media timeout, but Nash was on his way to the bench with two quick fouls. Cincinnati battled back within 3 points at 13-10, and the teams traded baskets for most of the rest of the half. Jack Cooley, who led the the team lead with 7 rebounds, gave the Irish valuable minutes until Nash returned with ND leading by 5 points late in the half. Then Notre Dame gave a preview of the second half.
Hansbrough was fouled on a drive and made both free throws, and Scott nailed a three to improve the lead to 10 points at halftime. It had been a battle with Cincinnati pressuring the ball all over the court and pounding the offensive boards, but Notre Dame was starting to get the better of it.
Then came the second half onslaught.
“When you have a performance like that, on this stage, that’s something I’m really proud of,” Brey said. “Hopefully it’ll give us momentum to keep playing well in New York.”
Gates lamented Cincinnati’s defense. “I (didn’t) think we were capable of playing ‘D’ as bad as we did tonight,” he said. “They made a lot of shots, a lot of shots early. They did a good job of getting us to collapse and kicking it out. They just came out ready to play.”
Bearcats head coach Mick Cronin was more succinct. “We got taken to the woodshed,” he said.
- Notre Dame shot poorly when it visited Madison Square Garden in January. Not so tonight. ND made a robust 56% of its shots for the game and 47% of its three point attempts.
- After an even first half on the boards, Notre Dame finished the game with a 35-28 rebounding advantage.
- As always, Cincinnati pressured the ball throughout the game; but Notre Dame had just 5 turnovers, none in the second half. That’s right, none. ” Thought we made good decisions when they pressed us,” said Brey. “We got open looks when we had numbers advantages.”
- It’s unusual for an opponent to score more than 4 fast break points against Notre Dame, yet the Irish usuallylose that stat battle. Tonight they had 9 fast breal points to Cincinnati’s none.
- The Irish are playing their best basketball of the year at the right time, and Hansbrough attributes their ongoing improvement to their practice habits. “It’s all a matter of how you prepare, and I think this group has prepared tremendously all year,” he said. “We prepared ourselves mentally and took our mental preparation to the next level, and we did that through practice. Coach Brey did a great job pushing us.”
- Asked whether his team deserved to be in the conversation for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Mike Brey didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely,” he said. “We have a very strong resume for it. Absolutely.”
- On the other side of the bracket, Kemba Walker’s buzzer beater lifted Connecticut to an upset of #1 seed Pittsburgh; and Brandon Trische’s 22 points led Syracuse to victory over St. John’s. The two winners will meet in the semi-finals at 7:00 PM Friday.
Louisville defeated Marquette 81-56 to advance to the semifinal match with Notre Dame. The two went to overtime a month ago, and the Irish prevailed 89-79. Kyle Kuric starred for Louisville that night with 28 points and 6 rebounds. Hansbrough was Notre Dame’s high point man with 25, and Abromaitis scored 23.
Just to refresh your memory, here’s a Louisville snapshot:
- #5 scoring offense in the Big East, 70.2 ppg
- #6 scoring defense in the Big East, 65.7 ppg
- #11 free throw percentage in the Big East, 67.5%
- #8 field goal percentage in the Bg East, 43.6%
- #2 field goal percentage defense in the Big East, 40.4%
- #6 three-point percentage in the Big East, 35.2%
- #12 rebounding margin in the Big East, -2.3
- #1 assists per game in the Big East, 16.7
- #1 turnover margin in the Big East, +2.4
- #2 assists/turnover ratio in the Big East, 1.3 (4 teams tied)
Notre Dame’s numbers:
- #3 scoring offense in the Big East, 71.7 ppg
- #9 scoring defense in the Big East, 66.9 ppg
- #6 free throw percentage in the Big East, 71.0%
- #2 field goal percentage in the Big East, 46.8%
- #9 field goal percentage defense in the Big East, 42.9%
- #1 three-point percentage in the Big East, 40.4%
- #6 rebounding margin in the Big East, +1.7
- #4 assists per game in the Big East, 15.3 per game (tied with Syracuse)
- #12 turnover margin in the Big East, -0.8
- #1 assist/turnover ratio in the Big East, 1.4
- #4 Notre Dame (26-5) vs #14 Louisville (24-8)
- Friday, March 11th at approximately 9:30 PM (ET)
- Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
- Television: ESPN
- Internet: ESPN3.com
– Kevin O’Neill