Five seniors broke their huddle, fanning out by the Notre Dame free throw line. Irish head coach Mike Brey, as he often does, kept his remarks brief during a media timeout with just under 12 minutes left in the first half.
So Cormac Ryan, Dane Goodwin, Trey Wertz, Marcus Hammond and Nate Laszewski turned their gaze toward the Pittsburgh bench, where Jeff Capel’s No. 25 Panthers were yet to take the floor.
The Irish seniors stood, waiting to defend their own basket, as if to say, “take your time.”
Notre Dame raced out to by 14-point lead at halftime and extended its lead to as many as 20 in the second half as the Irish (11-19, 3-16 ACC) upset the Panthers (21-9, 14-5 ACC) 88-81 with an inspired senior-day effort in Brey’s final home game at Purcell Pavilion.
Brey conducted his postgame radio interview in front of those who remained in Purcell. He began by requesting that someone run and order him a cocktail at The Linebacker Inn, where Brey revealed Tuesday he would go for the first time to celebrate his 23-year tenure as the winningest head coach in program history.
“What an unbelievable night, Brey said. “I’m really proud of our guys. (Pittsburgh is) really good. We defended pretty much the whole game. I thought we were good offensively, and it was neat to feel this atmosphere in here one last time. Our crowd was great. Our students were really good.”
Confident. Assertive. Physical. Those words haven’t described the Irish very often this season. They did Wednesday night, especially after that timeout. Especially when they closed the half on a 14-2 run.
It was the Notre Dame that showed up in a blowout, upset win over Michigan State back in November. The Irish that many believed would be heading back to the Tournament this season to avenge last year’s second-round exit.
The only way the Irish will return to the Big Dance now is by winning the ACC Tournament in Greensboro. That would take two more conference wins than the Irish have managed all season, but beating the team that began the night atop the ACC is a start.
“We got a lot to work with,” Ryan said after matching Hammond’s game-high 20 points. “Call me crazy, but I feel the same way about this group that I did when I was talking to you guys in June. I feel the same exact way. It hasn't gone our way, and in a lot of close ballgames, but I'm telling you, I wouldn't want to play us. I wouldn't want to play us in Greensboro, I’ll tell you that.”
The crowd was far from the sellout Brey’s devoted service and 483 wins deserved, but it got loud often Wednesday, especially when grad student Robby Carmody entered the game. A three-year battle with knee injuries robbed most of his career, but the grad student made the most of his five minutes. Shortly after entering the game, he got tangled up with 7- footer Guillermo Diaz Graham, frustrating both Graham, and the crowd, while Marcus Hammond took advantage of the 4-on-4 opportunity with a strong drive and layup.
Hammond had 13 of his 20 points in the first half, finishing 4-of-6 from 3. One came late in the shot clock, the Irish offense stagnant, on a stepback vs. ACC player of the year candidate Jamarius Burton. Another came on a behind-the-back pass from Ryan, who had 12 in the first half.
Ryan also flashed his trademark first pump and scream before finishing a traditional 3-point play, part of Notre Dame’s 11-0 run to close the first half to go up 42-28. The run was capped by Dane Goodwin, who hit a 3 with over a minute left and finished with 12 points.
The Purcell crowd were not just into it because the Irish went 7-of-15 from 3 in the first half. They were also booing plenty of fouls.
During Mike Brey’s two-plus decades in South Bend, the Irish have committed the fewest fouls in the NCAA, but the Irish committed a season-high 25 Wednesday, with both teams combining for 46. The physicality paid off, with Pittsburgh shooting just 35% in the first half.
Goodwin would eventually foul out with over 5:30 left, receiving a standing ovation as walked to the bench in his 156th appearance for the Irish, a program record. (Laszewski is currently second with 155.) One of those fouls was for a hard collision near the end of the first half, Goodwin barreling over Pittsburgh’s Nike Sibande — who led Pittsburgh with 19 points — in chase of a loose ball.
Brey didn’t seem to mind, especially after lamenting the Irish's inability to “put a chest” on someone throughout the season.
Pittsburgh left plenty of points at the line, anyway, shooting 20-of-36 (56%) from the charity stripe. The Irish, meanwhile, went 26-of-31(84%) from the line.
Pittsburgh cut the lead to five in a nervy final minute, but a run by Notre Dame to extend the lead at the start of the second half had put the game out of reach.
Shortly before the under-16 media timeout, Ryan followed up another Hammond 3 with a steal near midcourt, racing out for a two-handed jam to put the Irish up 53-36 and prompting some of the biggest cheers of the night.
The crowd was almost as loud when Marcus Freeman was featured on the video board during the ensuing timeout. But for one night, Notre Dame’s young phenom football coach wasn’t the main attraction.
The swan song for Notre Dame men’s basketball's winningest head coach hasn’t been pretty. On Wednesday, however, he got to sing one last victorious alma mater in front of a home crowd, after which he saluted the student section with several fist pumps. Wertz put his arm around Brey, the pair chatting as point guard and coach walked back to the home locker room for the final time.
Brey then headed to the ‘Backer.
“We may have lost games, at times,” Brey said.
“We never lose a party.”