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Notre Dame Basketball

Cards dealt, Notre Dame seizes first place in ACC

February 9, 2022

The play had been designed for Prentiss Hubb.

Notre Dame called its set and cleared out for its senior point guard, a game it once controlled now hanging precipitously close to robbing the Fighting Irish of sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

When surging Louisville denied its hosts their first option, Trey Wertz stepped up to help rescue the Fighting Irish – who played without senior post Nate Laszewski and were essentially limited to an undersized, six-man rotation.

Wertz drove left to right across the lane, to the bucket and kissed a layup off the glass.

57-55, Irish. A Purcell Pavilion crowd of 8,260 roaring its approval Wednesday night.

Momentum forever changed. And when Notre Dame had finished its game-closing, 9-2 charge, it had improved to 17-7 overall and 10-3 in ACC play with the 63-57 win– a half-game in front of every other team in the league.

“We called a double-drag for Prentiss, and he turned it down,” Wertz said of his go-ahead bucket. “My man helped all the way into the paint off Paul (Atkinson), and he threw it to me. I was just thinking, if he closes out short, shoot it. If he closes to me, just drive the ball. When I drove it, no one can to help so I just laid it up.

“It was a big bucket for sure, and we had to get stops.”

Stops they got; the Irish limited the Cardinals (11-13, 5-9) to just one bucket inside the game’s final six minutes, a stretch that included a five-minute, 48-second drought.

“Coach Brey talks about it all the time, we’re getting really good at closing out games,” said Atkinson, the ACC’s reigning player of the week who generated a Herculean 17-point, 15-rebound output. “We want it more, we want to win the game and we know what we need to do to close it out.”

Perhaps the singular moment of that finishing kick for the Irish, which included five points from Atkinson and Wertz’s go-ahead slash, was an ultra-confident, top-of-the-key 3-pointer from Hubb, who had missed his five previous tries from distance.

But his swish with just 2:43 on the clock lifted Notre Dame to a 62-55 edge and again supplied the breathing room the Irish had earlier constructed in a 14-point edge that it could not maintain.

“I think this group, I think they’re physically tough; they’re really pretty mentally tough, too,” Brey said. “Paul was fabulous, he has to go 37 minutes tonight. Second half, I just thought we’ll use a timeout if we really need to rest him. I didn’t think he would come out. I thought Cormac and Trey were fabulous, two games in a row, they were just great. Helping us flow. And No. 3 (Hubb) is No. 3. He can shoot two airballs in the first half and then he can put the dagger in you when it’s time and lead. Prentiss makes us believe. How he talks to guys, when it gets to be anxious, like it was. He’s got a way about him that I think other guys feed off of.

“(Hubb) is great. I think it was the second exhibition game, Coach Solomon goes, and it must have been getting a little weird in the second half, ‘Now I see why you play Hubb 38 minutes.’ Yeah, he’s a little hard to take out. Even though with Blake, it’s helped. It’s helped take a little pressure off him. But he’s the guy, he stirs the drink and leads. Chasing all this stuff he’s been fabulous.”

Louisville, which trailed 37-23 moments into the second half, spent the next 13 minutes of the frame piecing together a 32-17 run that culminated in Dre Davis’s dunk that lifted the visitors to an 55-54 edge.

The Cardinals’ Jae’lyn Withers had 12 of his game-best 20 points during that run, and he spent more than a bucket or two letting Atkinson and other Irish hear about his performance.

Notre Dame, however, never flinched.

“It’s going to happen every game,” said Atkinson. “There’s always guys who like to talk when they’re doing well and as soon as they stop doing well they go quiet. It happens, just gotta zone it out and play our defense.

“I think I’m used to it, more in a sense. Guy gets a bucket, talks a lot of junk. Just got to play through it and on to the next play.”

Dane Goodwin added 16 points for Notre Dame, which also got 10 from freshman Blake Wesley. Hubb, Ryan and Wertz combined for 19 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.

Now, the Irish prepare for Saturday’s trip to Clemson secure in first place, though Brey said Laszewski’s return this week remained doubtful from the knee-bruise.

“I told our guys, it’s awesome. … Let’s kind of believe that this is fate, this is our destiny, this is our time,” Brey said. “But to be in first place, you look at those standings later tonight, that’s really cool.

“Especially on Feb. 10. Really proud of the group.”

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