By TOM NOIE Tribune Staff Writer
10:07 PM EST, January 4, 2011
SOUTH BEND — A challenge like no other to close a three-game Big East stretch like no other for Notre Dame awaited senior captain Ben Hansbrough.
Asked to defend high-scoring Connecticut guard Kemba Walker, the country’s leading scorer (26.7 ppg.) coming into Tuesday’s game at Purcell Pavilion, Hansbrough also had to find ways to put up a few points of his own and drive the Irish to another critical conference win.
He answered all challenges, and so did No. 14 Notre Dame.
Four seniors scored double figures to offset the injury loss of a fifth as Notre Dame closed a gauntlet of three consecutive conference contests against Top 10 teams with a 73-70 victory over No. 8 Connecticut.
“We’re tough, man,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “We’ve got a mentally and physically tough group.”
Notre Dame improved to 13-2 overall, 2-1 in the Big East. Connecticut is 11-2, 1-2.
“Mike’s doing one of the best (coaching) jobs in the league,” said Huskies coach Jim Calhoun. “It’s a nice team to watch playing together.”
Hansbrough prepared long before this one tipped to guard Walker, who came into the contest operating with as much confidence and consistency as anyone in the country. Last summer, as he worked out in North Carolina with his brother, Tyler, and several NBA players including New York Knicks guard Raymond Felton, Hansbrough gained the confidence and conviction that he could adequately move his feet and keep the jet-quick Walker from going off.
So locked in on his assignment that he refused to come out of practice Monday, and then barked at his head coach in a huddle Tuesday, Hansbrough accepted the assignment of guarding Walker from the opening tip, and never relinquished the role. He played all 40 minutes, led all scorers with 21 points, grabbed five rebounds and had four assists.
“Ben has a been a man,” Brey said. “But tonight, he was the ultimate man on both ends of the floor.
“I love him.”
On the defensive end, Hansbrough limited Walker, who has erupted for as many as 42 this season, to 19, one better than his season low. That included an 0-for-5 offering from 3-point range.
“When I see somebody as talented as him, I look at that as a challenge,” Hansbrough said. “I was thrilled to get that challenge. It was a fun night to play against him.”
Afterward, Brey, who won career Big East game No. 100, was asked what player he’s coached during his 11 seasons in South Bend could have handled all the responsibility that Hansbrough embraced with dual efficiency and effectiveness. The answer? No one.
“We have not had a guy like that,” Brey said. “There’s just a toughness and an edge.”
Hansbrough had plenty of senior leadership to lean on down the stretch of a game the Irish trailed for only 1:37 and led by as many as 11 with 4:06 remaining.
Connecticut kept chipping away at it, and the home team didn’t help matters by coming up short (19-of-31) from the free throw line. But as Notre Dame saw its lead shrink to eight, then to five, then four and three and two in the closing seconds, there was an overriding feeling of confidence in the huddles and on the floor.
Someway, the Irish seemed to say with a glance or a nod, they were going to get this done.
“We lose a big part (Carleton Scott), but we have pieces that step in to keep things moving,” said senior captain Ty Nash. “We stayed poised out there.”
If it wasn’t Hansbrough, it was Abromaitis, who hit only 4-of-10 free throws but still had 19 points and seven rebounds. Prior to the tipoff, Brey pulled Scott Martin aside and told him there was no one in the building who could guard him. Martin side-stepped foul trouble - he picked up Nos. 3 and 4 in 17 seconds early in the second half - to go for 13 points and three rebounds.
And when someone in gold needed to make two free throws to keep belief in the building, Nash, once a ridiculously bad foul shooter, was ridiculously clutch with a pair of tosses with 12.5 seconds left to put the Irish up by five. He finished with 11 points and seven rebounds.
“We had to step up and take control,” Nash said. “I’m willing to help any way I can. I’m happy with any win.”
Brey believes the best-case scenario for Scott, who was hurt Saturday, is that he returns at the end of the month, a span of six more games. The Irish have no choice but to figure out a way to move forward without him. They did it once last year without Luke Harangody and won their first six games. Now they have to do it again.
Like it was Tuesday, it may not be pretty, but if it’s effective, it will be enough, just as it was a year ago.
“We’ve been here before,” Brey said.
CONNECTICUT (11-2): Roscoe Smith 5-8 1-2 11, Alex Oriakhi 0-3 0-0 0, Charles Okwandu 1-2 0-0 2, Jeremy Lamb 3-5 0-0 8, Kemba Walker 8-23 3-3 19, Donnell Beverly 0-0 0-0 0, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel 4-7 0-0 9, Niels Giffey 1-4 0-0 3, Tyler Olander 0-1 0-0 0, Shabazz Napier 4-6 7-7 18. Totals 26-59 11-12 70.
NOTRE DAME (13-2): Ty Nash 3-8 5-6 11, Tim Abromaitis 6-9 4-10 19, Eric Atkins 2-6 2-5 7, Scott Martin 4-12 3-4 13, Ben Hansbrough 7-16 5-6 21, Joey Brooks 0-0 0-0 0, Jack Cooley 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 23-53 19-31 73.
Halftime - Notre Dame 38-30. 3-Point Goals - Connecticut 7-18 (Napier 3-4, Lamb 2-3, Coombs-McDaniel 1-2, Giffey 1-3, Smith 0-1, Walker 0-5), Notre Dame 8-19 (Abromaitis 3-5, Hansbrough 2-6, Martin 2-6, Atkins 1-2). Fouled Out - Oriakhi. Rebounds - Connecticut 33 (Walker 7), Notre Dame 36 (Abromaitis, Nash 7). Assists - Connecticut 16 (Napier, Walker 5), Notre Dame 15 (Atkins 5). Total Fouls - Connecticut 23, Notre Dame 17. A - 7,291.Staff writer Tom Noie: email@example.com 574-235-6153
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