SOUTH BEND — Cars had just started filtering into Purcell Pavilion parking lots early Wednesday evening when Notre Dame senior captain Carleton Scott strolled toward the arena, head down and headphones on, with knowledge few others possessed.
Following two solid days of practice, Scott was going to try it against No. 25 Cincinnati after missing four consecutive games with a slight tear in his left hamstring. His return was a much-needed boost of adrenaline all the way around as No. 16 Notre Dame shook free sour feelings of two consecutive Big East losses for a 66-58 victory.
"It was a game-time decision," Scott said. "If I could help out my team any way I can, I was going to do it."
All five Irish starters scored in double figures, led by 13 points each from Ben Hansbrough, who was nearly automatic from the foul line, and Ty Nash, who rediscovered his low-post effectiveness thanks in part to the return of his best buddy.
Nash also had seven rebounds and three assists as Notre Dame, which never led in previous losses to Marquette and St. John’s, seldom trailed Wednesday.
Eric Atkins, who will relinquish his starting spot when Scott is ready to run major minutes, delivered 11 points, five assists and three rebounds in 36 minutes. He also had two big baskets in a second half that saw Notre Dame’s lead, which had ballooned to as many as 17 points, shaved to five late.
Atkins drove hard past Dion Dixon for a layup, then hit another high-percentage shot to keep the Bearcats at bay.
"I always feel I can go by my man," Atkins said. "It was just the right time. It was time for me to go."
Notre Dame limited Cincinnati to 38.3-percent shooting and forced 14 turnovers. The Irish also kept the Bearcats without a 3-pointer (0-for-4) in a first half that saw the home team lead 33-19 at intermission.
"They do a great job with their defense; they know exactly what they’re trying to do," said Bearcats coach Mick Cronin. "Our offense was pretty inept."
Scott played 15 minutes off the bench with six points, two rebounds, an assist, a steal and a blocked shot. But his value was measured in more than just numbers. It was no coincidence that the confidence level of all involved jumped a few notches when he practiced the whole way Monday, then again Tuesday. It was no coincidence that Nash played one of his best games with No. 34 back. It was no coincidence that Notre Dame cut and moved and passed and shot its way to a 13-0 run with Scott a big part of it early.
"It’s a beautiful thing to see him out there," Nash said. "He’s Batman, I’m Robin. Now it’s like back to normal.
"It just flowed."
Scott’s return was met with a collective sigh of relief from everyone interested. When he dunked in practice earlier in the week, Hansbrough shouted, "He’s back, baby!"
And he was. Publicly, coach Mike Brey had talked as recently as Monday morning about getting Scott back for the Feb. 3 game against DePaul. Privately, Scott had targeted Saturday’s rematch with Marquette to return.
"I’ll be back Saturday for good," Scott said. "It’s tough to watch the guys out there battling without you."
Scott checked in for Atkins at the 14:32 mark of the first half. Twenty-two seconds later, he attempted and connected on a 3-pointer, then smiled through his mouthpiece as he headed down the floor.
"It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders," he said. "I was so anxious to get back out there."
Notre Dame (15-4, 4-3 Big East) was 2-2 without Scott.
Following Sunday’s loss at St. John’s, the Irish knew collectively they had to be better from the foul line. Brey juggled the practice routine the previous two days to put more of an emphasis on foul shooting, and more pressure on his players. The results were obvious. After going 19-of-32 (59.4 percent) in New York, Notre Dame returned to connect 19-of-24 (79.2 percent).
"That’s probably the difference in the game," Hansbrough said. "It’s all mental. Hopefully we can continue to get to the line and sink them."
Nash registered Notre Dame’s last field goal — a two-handed dunk with the shot clock set to expire — with 2:49 remaining. The Irish weathered more shakiness with the ball late in the game by going 9-of-10 from the foul line the final 1:12. That included 6-of-7 from Hansbrough, who was 11-of-12 overall.
"Ben was huge to want the ball for us there," Brey said. "We were a little out of sorts handling the ball against their pressure and he just kind of took it and got fouled.
"We’ll take that."
CINCINNATI (16-3): Rashad Bishop 2-5 0-0 5, Ibrahima Thomas 0-5 0-0 0, Yancy Gates 6-16 1-2 13, Cashmere Wright 3-7 0-0 7, Dion Dixon 4-10 0-0 10, Justin Jackson 0-0 0-0 0, Larry Davis 1-2 0-0 3, Darnell Wilks 1-1 0-0 3, Sean Kilpatrick 6-12 3-4 16, Anthony McClain 0-0 0-0 0, JaQuon Parker 0-2 1-2 1. Totals 23-60 5-8 58.
NOTRE DAME (15-4): Ty Nash 6-11 1-2 13, Tim Abromaitis 4-10 2-2 12, Eric Atkins 3-3 4-4 11, Scott Martin 4-8 1-3 11, Ben Hansbrough 1-8 11-12 13, Joey Brooks 0-2 0-1 0, Carleton Scott 2-2 0-0 6, Jack Cooley 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-44 19-24 66.
Halftime — Notre Dame 33-19. 3-Point Goals — Cincinnati 7-16 (Dixon 2-4, Wilks 1-1, Kilpatrick 1-1, Davis 1-2, Bishop 1-3, Wright 1-3, Thomas 0-1, Gates 0-1), Notre Dame 7-14 (Scott 2-2, Martin 2-2, Abromaitis 2-5, Atkins 1-1, Hansbrough 0-2, Brooks 0-2). Fouled Out — Wilks. Rebounds — Cincinnati 32 (Gates, Thomas 5), Notre Dame 32 (Martin 8). Assists — Cincinnati 14 (Wright 6), Notre Dame 16 (Atkins, Hansbrough 5). Total Fouls — Cincinnati 22, Notre Dame 14. A — 8,309.