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Notre Dame Basketball

Full Circle: Notre Dame seniors pummel Pitt, end regular season in style

March 5, 2022

Pittsburgh’s biggest lead was its only lead, and host Notre Dame trailed for all of 17 seconds during Saturday’s matinee affair before a Purcell Pavilion crowd announced at 8,555.

Then the Fighting Irish went about engineering a proper senior day send-off for a group of players who have absorbed no shortage of tough breaks, late losses that laid a bitter foundation for this campaign but rallied to play their best basketball here in the 2021-22 season.

With Saturday’s 78-54 pasting of Pittsburgh, the Fighting Irish (22-9, 15-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) set a new program-record with their 15th conference win in a single season, secured second place in the less-top-heavy-more-balanced-ACC and positioned themselves, well, for what veteran coach Mike Brey believes could be several more weeks of basketball.

Yes, weeks.

“I’m really proud of them,” said Brey, an ACC Coach of the Year contender. “They believe, have ownership of themselves. They believe they can play till April, and they’re right. They’re right. They can play for a long time, and they’re right.”

The Irish have played at an elevated level this season for the longest time under Brey in at least five years, and subsequently have positioned themselves for an NCAA Tournament bid in eight days based on a “Hell of a resumé,” as Brey has said, and perhaps regardless of what might happen Thursday when they open play in the ACC Tournament at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.

This, after they opened their careers here amidst a 19-loss 2018-19 season that included 15 ACC losses. 

“Early on in our careers, we took a lot of punches,” said senior forward Nate Laszewski, one of seven Notre Dame players honored in the regular-season finale. “As you know, every ACC opponent is really tough. But I think just a testament to staying solid, staying together, especially this year, too, when we were having some rough patches early on. We didn’t falter or anything. We came in every day of practice and stuck together and have been able to get on a run here the last couple of months. It’s been awesome.

“We talked about being able to capture that record a little bit as a group. It’s hard to describe in words, gone by extremely fast, those some of my best friends. Even though we went through those rough patches early on, no one was getting down or abandon ship. We all kinda stuck together and kept working, and to see it come full circle is awesome.”

The Irish set the early tone to seize that regular-season wins record, and in the process secured their most wins in five seasons. Notre Dame led by nine points on Laszewski’s layup, 15-6, less than nine minutes after opening tip and took a double-digit lead on a 3-pointer from Cormac Ryan –- as the two seniors combined to open the game eight-for-eight from long-distance.

By halftime, the Irish had led by as many as 12 on four different occasions and made their 31-21 edge seem already insurmountable.

Too, the Irish shared the basketball with what has become their signature unselfish brand of sharing. They had 21 assists, just days after only doling out 10 in a last-minute loss at Florida State.

Senior point guard Prentiss Hubb had a game-high six assists, committed just two turnovers and added five points. Laszewski led all scorers with 17, as well as nine boards, and Ryan added 15 as Brey deployed an all-senior starting lineup. Paul Atkinson Jr. and Dane Goodwin contributed 10 apiece.

Off the bench in deference to the veterans, rookie sensation Blake Wesley had 11 points that included a highlight-reel dunk and also dished out four assists without a single turnover.

Notre Dame forged to a 20-point lead, 43-23, on Ryan’s 3 and then found themselves up 21 after a deep blast from Laszewski. The Irish never led by fewer than 16 in the game’s final 17:42 and led by 20 or more for the game’s final 4-plus minutes.

In other words, they simply further burnished the confidence Brey has in this group’s ability to keep playing … next week and beyond.

“I’ve never been more excited about taking a team into the postseason, and I’ve had some pretty good ones,” Brey said.

“Leadership. Experience. We have really improved defensively, which is something we attacked starting in June. I always thought we’d be good offensively, but I thought the format we gave them to play out of after the (Boston College) game (in December), they have embraced and we’ve had different guys make big plays when it’s on the line. Different guys have made plays and I just want them to keep believing.”

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