Irish poised for Big East tournament run

STORRS, Conn. -- Notre Dame coach Mike Brey didn’t hesitate to put Ben Hansbrough in the game with four personal fouls, despite the Irish holding an eight-point lead with nearly nine minutes left at Connecticut.

But he made sure the fifth-year senior, and potential Big East Player of the Year, had a clear understanding of what he shouldn’t do.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Ben, don’t foul,’ and then [a few] seconds later there was a foul and I was out of the game,’’ said Hansbrough.

The Fighting Irish senior checked into the game with 8:34 left. He committed an offensive foul with his forearm 10 seconds later.

Connecticut proceeded to go on a 13-0 run and took a five-point lead as the game looked like it was about to get away from the Irish. And yet Brey never doubted his decision.

“He should be able to play [with four fouls],’’ Brey said. “That’s a 1950s way of thinking: ‘Oh, don’t put him in with four fouls.’ That’s a fifth-year senior and I told him before he went in and then the whistle blew. We’ll both take responsibility for it, but he’s taking more.’’

Brey was laughing as he made the point, as well he should. The gamble may actually pay off for the Irish in the Big East and NCAA tournaments. They were able to withstand a Huskies’ push led by Kemba Walker, who scored 11 of UConn’s 13 points during the run. Tyrone Nash, Scott Martin and Tim Abromaitis each made plays down the stretch as the Irish retook the lead before holding on for a 70-67 victory. All three of those players are seniors, just like Hansbrough. They toughened up on the defensive end to halt the Huskies. And they never panicked.

That’s why Notre Dame finished up No. 2 in the Big East in the regular season. The experience and toughness of this team is much like first-place Pitt, a team the Irish beat on the road.

“We were really poised once we got it into the low post,’’ Brey said. “We can bang because we are so big. Making 10 3s on the road helps, but this team showed it could score in the arc. We’re tall and we’re physical.’’

UConn had chances to tie the game late but Walker missed a 3-pointer with nine seconds left and then passed off to Donnell Beverly for their final attempt but the ball was low and Beverly never got a shot off.

“We have so many seasoned vets on this team,’’ Nash said. “We’re mentally tough men. We knew they’d make a run. We felt deep inside that we could win a championship. This is great going into the Big East tournament.’’

Hansbrough finished with 21 points in 27 minutes; Walker with 34 points in 40 minutes. The difference all season long between the two is the help each has had. Hansbrough’s support has been consistent and experienced, while Walker’s support comes largely from freshmen and has been erratic.

Walker said he passed on the last shot because the whole Irish team was on him. He’s made plenty of big shots this season, but he couldn’t win this game alone. UConn coach Jim Calhoun said the Huskies did a good job of frustrating Hansbrough. But he said the Irish knew that when they needed a bucket, they could go inside where the Huskies struggled defensively throughout the game.

“Kemba was unstoppable,’’ Calhoun said. “That’s the best he’s gotten to the rim in a long, long time. He just really wanted to make this day special. He’s devastated, obviously. As we all are.’’

Walker shot 11-of-22 from the field and 10-of-10 at the free throw line. His teammates combined to score one fewer point (33), shot 15-of-36 from the field and got to the line once. Notre Dame had four players, all seniors, score in double figures with Hansbrough, Nash (13), Abromaitis (11) and Carleton Scott (13).

“I think this takes us to the next level with our confidence,’’ Hansbrough said.

Connecticut was 12-0 in the nonconference and was once a top-five team. But the Huskies finished the regular season ranked outside the top eight in the Big East and will need to win five games to claim the Big East championship. Meanwhile, Notre Dame has a chance to be a top-two seed in the NCAA tournament.

“We know what it’s like to play three games in a championship since we did it over Thanksgiving against good teams,’’ said Brey of winning the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. “We’ve played on Friday night in New York [at the Big East tournament]. But we’ve never gotten to Saturday night [for the final]. I wonder what it would be like to play on Saturday night.’’

If the final eight minutes against UConn are any indication of what’s to come for Notre Dame, then there’s no reason to believe the Irish won’t soon find out.