SOUTH BEND - Down by eight points in the second half and on the verge of being out with little going its way on either end, Notre Dame needed to do something, anything, to get it in gear.
The Irish then did a little of everything. They rebounded. They dug in, really dug in, and defended. They ran some burn offense. They mustered second shots, connected on some key free throws and came of age just a bit in a 59-53 victory over Detroit in the first round of the CBE Classic.
“We learned a lot about our team tonight,” said power forward Jack Cooley. “That’s the definition of adversity, what just happened out there. We just fought through a ton with such confidence.
“In the end, there was no question.”
Much more tough stuff likely awaits, but coach Mike Brey knows he can return time and again to this night in Purcell Pavilion, when many in a sparse crowd and a national-television audience watched as a 20-game home streak seemingly was on the verge of vaporizing against too much speed and quickness and athleticism.
Instead, positive steps were taken by a team now a little more certain of itself.
“That’s a great win for our group,” Brey said. “I don’t know if I’ve been prouder of a group given who they are, trying to find themselves, to beat a very good basketball team.
“We had to get through tough stuff throughout the game when things really didn’t look good.”
Down 41-33 with 14:04 to play, Notre Dame (2-0) ran off 12 consecutive points and tightened down defensively - with man-to-man defense and a mainly small lineup - to run its homecourt win streak to 21. The Titans didn’t score again until 6:23 remained.
“We had to grind out the second half,” said guard Eric Atkins, who also hit a few big shots. “We pride ourselves on not losing in this building.
“We always knew we’d come back.”
Knew it even when the Titans looked like they got to every loose ball, every missed shot, and sometimes every missed second shot. Knew it when the Irish offense staggered through stretches when they either quick-shot it or couldn’t get a shot. Knew it when it became apparent the game would be played in the 50s.
“Down eight seems like down two here,” Atkins said. “It doesn’t really feel like anything. One stop, get the crowd into it. We just had a great total team defense.”
Notre Dame limited Detroit to 26.3 percent shooting (10-of-38) in the second half and 30.9 percent for the game. The Irish stayed committed to defense despite rarely being able to get rolling offensively. Still, they refused to check out on the other end of the floor, something previous groups might have done. Instead, they forced a shot-clock violation, a miss, a turnover, another miss, an offensive foul. Anything to muster some momentum to score.
“That takes a lot of mental toughness,” Brey said. “Quite frankly, I didn’t know if we were mature enough to do that yet.”
The Irish also received a monster second-half effort from someone who rarely lacks confidence - freshman Pat Connaughton. Limited to no points and one rebound in a four-minute cameo the first 20 minutes, Connaughton returned to finish with 10 points and nine rebounds. He played 16 of the final 20 minutes and delivered many a big play at a big time.
“First half, I came in and was a little too jacked up,” Connaughton said. “We learned that we have a lot of guys that can contribute and we’re a good team.”
Junior Joey Brooks delivered career highs of 13 points and nine rebounds. He also locked in on and locked down Detroit guard Ray McCallum Jr., who scored 12 points the first seven minutes but had only eight the rest of the way.
“We needed someone to lock in all game,” Brooks said. “I really just wanted him not to get his feet set, make him drive by me.”