Entering Wednesday night 4-3 in their last 7 games, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (25-5, 13-4) had a huge opportunity for a statement game on the road and to firmly reestablish itself as a top contender heading into tournament season. They seized that opportunity in a big way, taking down the Louisville Cardinals (23-7, 11-6) in Kentucky by a final score of 71-59.
Louisville started this one out nicely, scoring the game's first 6 points, but after that, the first half was all Irish. They outscored the Cardinals by 17 the rest of the half, going into the half with a nice cushion on the road. The stellar backcourt tandem of Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson each went into the half with 10 points and had Notre Dame looking like they might be able to earn an easy victory, especially after Grant's sensational turnaround jumper to beat the buzzer.
It was not that easy, however, as Louisville went on a big run to start the second half, scoring the first 11 points to tie it up and not allowing an Irish field goal for nearly 10 straight minutes.
The Irish did not waver down the stretch, however, as they rode Jackson and freshman Bonzie Colson when it looked like things were starting to get away from them. Notre Dame, clearly known for their offense, also was able to turn up the heat defensively when their shots weren't falling to help keep them afloat.
Ultimately, behind Jackson's 21 points (and 4 steals, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists) and Colson's career-high 17 (to go along with 9 boards), on a perfect 7 for 7 from the floor, the Irish were able to cruise down the stretch, keeping the Cardinals at arms length for the final few minutes and finishing the game strong from the free throw line.
Despite that unbelievable 10 minute stretch without a field goal, the Irish still shot nearly 54% on the game, this on the road against one of the best defenses in the country (KenPom has them at 6th). Their performance from the free throw line was just as impressive, as they converted 20 of 25 including many down the stretch.
Montrezl Harrell led the Cardinals with an impressive 23 points on 8 of 12 shooting to go along with 12 rebounds for the double-double machine. Outside of Harrell's performance, however, Louisville really struggled offensively as the rest of his teammates shot just 35% en route to a lackluster 59 points on their home court against an often middling Irish defense.
With the victory, Notre Dame locked up a 3rd place finish in the ACC, an unbelievable turnaround from last season's debacle. The Irish finish out their regular season on Saturday afternoon, as they host the Clemson Tigers (16-13, 8-9) at 4:00pm at the Purcell Pavilion. A win on Saturday would surpass the regular season of the 2010-2011 team by a half game.
Other Thoughts and Observations:
- You don't win player of the year awards in Philadelphia without some onions, and boy does Steve Vasturia got 'em. He scored the first points of the half for the Irish after taking the ball straight to the hole and drawing a foul, and his lay-in and the foul late extended the lead to 7 and just about ended things.
- It's so great to see this Demetrius Jackson back. That's just a tough backcourt to keep in check for 40 minutes when he is going well.
- A road victory over a ranked opponent despite the two seniors not playing particularly well. That is really hard to believe but certainly a testament to the leadership of Jackson, the efficiency of Colson, and an attention to defense by everyone when they really have to buckle down.
- A win on Saturday should also pretty much clinch a 3 seed for the NCAA Tournament, even with a loss in the ACC quarterfinals (not that anyone wants to see that). A win on Saturday and a run in the ACC Tourney? Well, I really don't think a 2 seed is out of the question quite yet.
- What more needs to be said about Bonzie Colson, other than he is a star in the making for this program? Guy has all-ACC written all over him in the next couple years.
- It will be very interesting to see what happens with Louisville this tournament season. I have a hard time doubting Rick Pitino in March, but this team just doesn't look right and it's hard to see them making too big of a run. Personally, I would love to see them in the ACC Final because I will forever feel like we owe them for the 2011 Big East Tournament. That was the one that got away, more than any game in the NCAA Tournament in the past decade.
- Have to believe that Tony Bennett will be getting his second straight ACC Coach of the Year award, but I'd love to see it split with Brey. This may have been Brey's best season in a career in which he has had plenty of really good ones.