Never underestimate the effectiveness of a well-timed expletive. After his team missed its first 12 shots and started 1-for-19 from the field at Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center, Notre Dame head coach went on a tirade — more to fire up the Fighting Irish than to dispute the officiating — that yielded a technical foul. Pitt got two points out of the deal for a 16-point advantage at the 7:08 mark in the first half, but the Irish benefitted the most from Brey’s antics and went on to claim a critical 51-42 victory.
“I don’t know how much it’s pre-meditated," Brey said of the technical. "I was just so frustrated and thought on some of our drives we were getting bumped a little bit. He probably could have thrown me out because I stayed after him and he looked away and I thank him for that. Sometimes that does change the vibe, however.
"We got some stuff in transition though, and once we got a couple in transition, you went (exhales) and got a deep breath. Jerian was really able to get off ball screens. I thought Jerian and Eric were fabulous after the first 10 minutes and the whole second half controlling the tempo. Then the last seven minutes we were burning and getting great stuff at the end of the clock.”
Senior forward Jack Cooley and junior guard Jerian Grant each finished with 13 points to lead the Irish, which improved to 21-6 overall and 9-5 in Big East Conference play. Tray Woodall had 11 points for Pitt, which slipped to 20-7 overall and 8-6 in the league. Notre Dame now resides alone in fifth place in the conference standings behind Syracuse, Georgetown and Marquette, each of which is 9-3, and 9-4 Louisville.
The Irish went on a 16-3 run to end the first half down 22-19. They shot just 22.2 percent (6-for-27) from the field in the opening frame, but outrebounded the Panthers 22-13. Notre Dame sophomore Pat Connaughton knocked down two big 3-pointers to pace the team with six points.
A sluggish start to the second half, however, put Notre Dame back in a 26-19 hole.
Notre Dame cleaned up on the glass, outrebounding the Panther 36-22, including a 10-3 advantage in offensive boards. A timely triple by junior point guard Eric Atkins helped the Irish get back on track, senior center Tom Knight hit a smoother 15-foot jumper and Grant added his first two field goals of the game with a fade-away jump shot and a friendly-bounce 3-pointer for a 29-28 advantage — Notre Dame’s first lead since a 1-0 advantage to start the game.
Another Grant 3-pointer, followed by a clever dish to Cooley cutting through the lane gave the Irish a 40-34 cushion with 6:42 to play. But after shooting ? percent in the first half, the Panthers were frostbitten in the second, shooting just ? percent ( ) and were unable to muster a late charge.
A final Grant trey sealed the deal at 43-34 and Cooley cleaned up a Grant miss with a strong move late in the shot clock to stay ahead by nine with 2:52 left to play. Atkins added an aggressive baseline drive before Connaughton and Cooley contributed three points at the foul line or the final margin.
The Irish finished 18-for-47 (38.3 percent) shooting and 6-for-14 from behind the arc. Pitt ended the night 16-for-46 (34.8 percent) and 0-for-8 from 3-point land. Notre Dame cleaned up on the glass, outrebounding the Panthers 40-25, including a 13-6 advantage in offensive boards.
"Yesterday we came down here and we really worked on our offense, you could tell the teacher that I am, we got off to a great start offensively and really digested that stuff," Brey said sarcastically. "For our group to withstand that start, I’m just so thrilled with how we guarded and rebounded. "To outrebound them (Pitt) by 15 and keep them off the offense boards, because they do that so well, it was huge.
"Early in the game it was hard because of their defense because their defense just is so good. I’m thrilled for our group, it seems like we’ve been on the road for awhile and to end this road trip with a win against these guys here is great."
Added Cooley: “To out rebound them that bad is huge, it just shows how tough our team is. Pat Connaughton pulled down some rebounds today and it was some of the the most impressive rebounds I have ever seen. Everyone just came in with the mentality of getting boards; it is so great to see, instead of just one out liar everyone just working together.”