Alex Dragicevich, Scott Martin and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish played hard nosed defense against Ashton Gibbs (middle) and the Pittsburg Panthers in their Big East season opener. (AP/Joe Raymond)
There really must be magic in Purcell Pavilion. The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame (8-5) stunned the #22 Pittsburgh Panthers (11-2) 72-59, led by sophomore Alex Dragicevich's career high 22 points and a collective 72% shooting in the second half to extend Notre Dame's home game win streak to 28, going back 3 seasons. I was able to attend the game in person, sit in the same row as Skylar Diggins (she really is gorgeous by the way, and yes we talked for like... 10 seconds- nice Christmas present), jeer at Jim Burr (how in the world is this guy still around? same goes for you Tim Higgins- what's the secret?) and cheer the home team on with the rest of the South Bend community who showed up to fill up Purcell Pavilion 2 days after Christmas despite the snow outside.
Recap of the Irish victory after the jump.
Notre Dame seems to have found their starting 5 as the same five - Jack Cooley, Scott Martin, Alex Dragicevich, Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins - started their 4th straight game as a unit. Pittsburgh came into the game with the leading Big East player of the year candidate Ashton Gibbs (17.2 ppg) and the outstanding PG Tray Woodall (8.3 apg) who was coming off a groin injury that caused him to miss the last 6 games.
The man to man defense that ND started out with allowed 9 straight layups to Pitt before switching to the 2-3 zone which has been effective for the Irish most of the year. Pitt was subsequently limited to just 1 field goal the rest of the first half. Once down by 7, the Irish rallied to take the lead at one point but entered the locker rooms down by one 26-25.
Mike Brey intelligently employed the zone defense nearly the whole second half, at times going big - featuring both Jack Cooley and Tom Knight - to counter the rebounding advantage that Pitt held in the first half. Jamie Dixon - who has been one of the most consistent coaches in the country, seemed to have no counter. Other than the occasional Knight for Martin or Cooley, Brey made no other changes in the second half, sticking with the Dragicevich-Grant-Atkins backcourt who did damage by making 3's, hitting long jumpers at the end of the shot clock and creating for others leading the home team to a 18/25 shooting performance in the final 20 minutes. Grant had 15 points and 9 assists while Atkins - who was named co-captain this week - chipped in another 15 points with 5 rebounds and 4 assists. Cooley also played like a man among boys in the boards grabbing a game high 14 rebounds, securing key defensive boards in the second half.
"You always try to look for benchmarks you can point to" Brey said in his postgame interview, "... we're gonna remember this second half for a long time." He also praised the scoring abilities of his young guards "We're gonna need Alex, Jerian and Eric to play with the same aggressiveness they did in the second half for 40 minutes. That's what we're going to talk about tomorrow."
1-0 is obviously the best way you could start conference play but the Irish face a talented Cincinnati team and an elite Louisville squad in consecutive road games next week and the season will not get much easier. It is a tall order to ask this team to translate their Tuesday night performance into every night, but given the adversity this team has already overcome - losing their best player for the season, virtually having everyone go through the flu in the first part of non-conference play - it wouldn't surprise me if they did. They're still young and will make mistakes and go through losses, but there sure is no quit in this Fighting Irish team and that's something we can all cheer about.