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Irish Do It Again, Win 8th Straight

Consider the Notre Dame men’s basketball team the eighth wonder of the world — at least in the college hoops realm. The No. 23 Fighting Irish, looking like a shell of the squad that had rattled off seven consecutive Big East Conference victories, pulled together in crunch time to rally for a 74-70 win in overtime Saturday at Villanova.

Freshman Pat Connaughton hit seven 3-pointers to lead ND to an overtime victory

“First of all, I’m exhausted,” Irish head coach Mike Brey told Und.com after the game. “But it’s a good exhaustion. We are special. We talked about striving to be special since the Syracuse game and I really think we are.

“I thought we did a great job at halftime. We had given up nine offensive rebounds and they kind of had their way with us. I thought we were kind of gliding a little bit. Maybe for the first time I saw us, ‘Hey, it’s been a good year; we’ve won seven,’ that kind of thing. We made big shots down the stretch. We’re fearless. This group has done it in Louisville and they’ve done it at Morgantown.”

Down by as many as 20 points against a shorthanded Wildcats outfit in the first half, the Irish (19-8, 11-3 Big East) chipped away in the final 20 minutes, relying on an effective 2-3 zone, an up-tempo offense, a better rebounding presence and clutch shots to claim their eight straight league win, which ties a program record.

A layup by reserve Joey Brooks and two buckets under the basket from forward Jack Cooley cut the deficit to 39-23 at the break, but things looked extremely bleak for the Irish.

Nearly four minutes into the second half, Villanova (11-15, 4-10) still held a 14-point advantage. Irish freshman guard Pat Connaughton chose a good night to step up once again, doing damage from deep. The rookie finished with a team-high 21 points, with all seven field goals coming from behind the arc. His triple with 15:51 to play made it a 40-29 game in favor of the Wildcats.

Sophomore Jerian Grant struggled from the field but converted when it matter most, connecting on a 3-pointer 47 seconds later to make it a 10-point contest. All three of Grant’s baskets were 3-pointers as well. Notre Dame went over four minutes without a field goal until sophomore point guard Eric Atkins drained a trey to trim Villanova’s lead down to 46-37.

Another Connaughton 3-pointer with 7:11 to go kept the Irish within reach, but they let nearly two minutes go by before fifth-year senior Scott Martin was able to sink a pair of free throws to keep the deficit at eight points. But a triple by Connaughton and a three-point play by Atkins (17 points, six assists) gave Notre Dame a 57-56 lead with 1:45 to go.

Grant added what seemed to be the dagger with a long ball with 61 seconds left on the clock for a 60-56 advantage. Soon after, Grant was called for a foul and the Wildcats’ Dominic Cheek made both foul shots. With five seconds left, Villanova’s Tyrone Johnson missed a short jumper that bounded left off the iron and into the hands of Maurice Sutton, who quickly put it back with less than a second left to send the game to overtime.

Connaughton knocked down two more 3-pointers and Grant added another before Cooley (18 points, 13 rebounds) performed the final cleanup at the foul line in the extra period. It was Cooley’s fourth straight double-double.

“I don’t think anybody in the country plays as together better than us on both ends of the floor,” Brey said. “It’s a really together unit. I know it’s a corny thing, but it’s a big thing. And it’s really a big thing in February after you’ve spent three or four months together. I’m very proud of this team. I’m honored to coach them because they have a look about them, a swagger about them and they are cruel competitors when it comes time to put the dagger in.”

Unable to get in a proper shootaround at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Penn., because of a Flyers’ hockey game earlier in the day, the chill from the ice under the floorboards seemed to creep up to Notre Dame’s collective fingertips in the first half.

Villanova was without starting point guard Maalik Wayns (knee), a strong Big East Player of the Year contender averaging 17.8 points per game, and sophomore guard James Bell (ankle). A typically quick, guard-oriented team was forced to go big and fairly inexperienced against Notre Dame. It worked until fatigue became a factor.

Forward JayVaughn Pinkston poured in a game-high 24 points Cheek added 19 for Villanova, which outrebounded Notre Dame 39-33. Big Man Mouphtaou Yarou pulled and Sutton each had 11 boards for the Wildcats.

“I think it’s always a concern when you can’t get on the floor,” Brey said. “But we started the game and made some 3s; I thought we were going to shoot it well. I thought [Villanova’s] defense harassed us in the first half. In the second half they got a little tired and we ran. They didn’t get a second shot and we were able to rebound and run and got some stuff in transition.”

Villanova shot 38.1 percent (24-for-63) for the game. Notre Dame was 25-for-66 (37.9 percent) and made 12 of 30 attempts from 3-point range. The Wildcats converted 7 of 18 attempts from behind the arc. Usually a weapon, the Irish only got the foul line 17 times and were outscored 15-12 from the stripe.

Notre Dame kept pace with Marquette, a 79-64 winner over Connecticut Saturday, for second place behind Syracuse in the Big East standings with four games remaining. The Irish host West Virginia Wednesday.

“This is a memorable one because of this group because of how down we were in November and December and how far we’ve come,” Brey said. “You don’t want to get too high because we’re still trying to plug along here. That’s a great win. I’m glad we don’t play until Wednesday; we need a little rest.”

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