LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Notre Dame and Louisville brought a curious combination into their game at the KFC Yum! Center on Tuesday night.
Both were top-20 teams with glittering records, yet they still had much to prove even as late as this March matchup. Because it's not quite win-or-else time yet, definitive answers weren't necessarily gleaned. Still, the No. 12 Irish went off into the snowy night with far less lingering doubt after a 71-59 victory.
Did it ultimately mean much going forward?
"I think that's kind of overanalyzing it," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "But you do want momentum going into the postseason."
This much is for certain: Momentum had slowed for Brey's team after it opened the season 20-2, including a memorable 77-73 win over Duke on Jan. 28. After that, though, the Irish won only four of their next seven and closed out February with a home loss to Syracuse. It became fair to begin wondering whether Notre Dame, which hasn't advanced past the NCAA tournament's first weekend since 2003, was again built more for January than March.
The win over the No. 16 Cardinals offered encouragement on a few fronts.
Notre Dame absorbed a second-half surge by the home team, as Louisville erased an 11-point halftime deficit and took a 47-46 lead with 11:44 to go. After shooting a blistering 58 percent in the first half, Brey's guys did not make a field goal for the first 9:26 of the second half and looked primed for a collapse.
Instead, they found their legs at just the right time, making their final seven field goal attempts. And they did it without needing star guard Jerian Grant to shoulder the load, as he scored only two points in the second half. Sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson (21 points) and freshman forward Bonzie Colson (17 points and nine rebounds, both career highs) combined for 18 of the team's final 23 points.
"That's huge," Grant said. "If those young guys can do that, it's going to take us a long way."
Colson in particular has come a long way in a short time. He played a total of one minute in Notre Dame's first four ACC games. But he has now scored 16, 16 and 17 points in his past three games while providing a much-needed interior presence off the bench despite being listed at only 6-foot-5.
"When I wasn't playing, that just gave me more motivation to keep working hard and get more hours in the gym," he said. "I just had to stay positive that my teammates had my back."
"He's probably like my height, like 6-foot-3," Jackson said. "So for him to do what he did tonight, rebounding against bigger guys and giving great effort on defense, that's really huge going forward."
As Brey's rotation expands, Rick Pitino is still scrambling to figure out how to patch up his. Louisville had won its first two games since dismissing third-leading scorer and top assist man Chris Jones on Feb. 22. But while beating Georgia Tech and Florida State on the road was nice, Tuesday night's game and Saturday's showdown at home with No. 2 Virginia loomed as far more accurate reads on the Cardinals' current state.
Jones' replacement in the starting lineup, freshman Quentin Snider, scored six points against the Irish. But he and backup guard Anton Gill could not contain Notre Dame's guard-heavy lineup, as Jackson thrived on uncontested mid-range shots in the second half. Louisville's press also was ineffective without Jones' quick hands and aggressive style; in fact, the Irish rattled the Cardinals more with their own surprising extended defense.
"Look, it's obvious that Quentin Snider doesn't play defense, but he wasn't supposed to be in this situation," Pitino said. "He was thrown into a situation where it's not his fault."
With the center position a continuing black hole on the roster, Pitino was basically playing three-on-five versus Brey at times. One of his few scoring options had an off night, too, as guard Terry Rozier went just 4-for-15 from the floor. That spelled doom against one of the most efficient offenses in the country.
The Cardinals' loss dropped them into a tie with North Carolina for the No. 4 seed in the ACC tournament and the last of the coveted double-byes. A complicated tie-breaker system comes into effect if Louisville and the Tar Heels -- who finish at home with Duke -- both lose Saturday. But Louisville has more important issues than whether it gets to skip a conference tournament game.
"It's going to come down to, when we get in the tournament, matchups," Pitino said. "We get the wrong matchup, we're going to have an exit."
The Irish are feeling confident that they can stick around in the postseason a little longer. Tuesday's win was their seventh on the road in league play, increasing their single-season school record.
"I don't know if I've ever had a better team at staying poised in a tough atmosphere," Brey said.
Definitive answers will arrive soon. But as far as early March questions go, Notre Dame turned in an excellent response.