PITTSBURGH – Even as his team built an early 16-point lead, even as it limited the opposition to three points over the first 13:54 of the game, Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon was feeling anything but content.
He couldn’t have imagined what followed.
Jerian Grant and Jack Cooley scored 13 points each and No. 25 Notre Dame overcome a horrendous shooting start and beat No. 20 Pitt 51-42 on Monday night.
The Irish missed 18 of their first 19 shots and trailed 19-3 after the Panthers’ Tray Woodall sunk a pair of free throws resulting from a technical called on Notre Dame coach Mike Brey technical.
But the Irish fed off the momentum their coach’s technical gave them, closing out the first half on a 16-3 run and continuing to ride the wave in the second half to win going away.
“I thought even with the lead, I didn’t feel like our offense was very good,” said Dixon, who saw his team finish with the second-lowest scoring total in his 10-year career as a head coach.
“I didn’t think we played well even when we had the lead, to be honest,” he added . “Our guys are extremely disappointed and I’m disappointed.”
A self-professed “raving lunatic” while watching his team fall behind 17-3, Brey wasn’t considering the potential consequences when he gave referee John Gaffney an earful.
“I was just so frustrated,” Brey said. “He probably could have thrown me out because I stayed after him and he looked away, so I thank him for that.
“I don’t know, how much is it premeditated? … Sometimes, that does change the vibe.”
Eric Atkins added 10 points and seven assists for Notre Dame (21-6, 9-5 Big East), which has won five in a row over Pittsburgh (20-7, 8-6) and snapped a tie with the Panthers for fourth place in the conference. The top four teams get a double-bye in next month’s league tournament.
Woodall had 11 points to lead the Panthers, who lost for the second time in three days since winning seven of eight.
They appeared to be cruising – especially defensively – until the entire game swung following Brey’s technical.
“I definitely think so – there were seven or eight straight fouls called after that,” Woodall said. “I’m not sure if the refs eased up or put on binoculars or I don’t know, but after that, the game just changed.
“We should have kept our composure and still played our same style, but I guess whew you hear the whistle a couple times, you tend to back off a little bit. But that’s just the way the game goes.”
Notre Dame shot 60.7 percent (17 for 28) after missing 18 of its first 19 shots and limited Pitt to 30-percent shooting (9 for 30) over the final 27 minutes of the game. The Irish improved to 4-1 against ranked teams.
Cooley had three of Notre Dame’s 13 offensive rebounds, and the Irish held a 40-25 advantage on the boards overall. The minus-15 was the worst rebounding margin of the season for Pitt, which entered as the Big East’s second-best team in rebounding margin but has been out-rebounded in each of its losses.
“To get out-rebounded by 15 is just an unbelievable number,” Dixon said.
Playing without freshman forward Durand Johnson, who had a stomach virus, the Panthers were held without a 3-pointer for the second time this season.
“We just never got in that rhythm here today,” Dixon said.
The Irish – who, like Pitt, lost on Saturday – didn’t find their rhythm until late in the first half. Notre Dame missed its first 12 shots and did not have a field goal until 9:14 had elapsed in the game and it was trailing 11-1.
Their spurt began five minutes later with Pat Connaughton’s 3-pointer from the left corner with 6:06 left in the first half. Thirty-five seconds later on the Irish’s next possession, Connaughton hit another 3, drawing a timeout from Dixon and an enthusiastic fist pump from Brey as he sprinted onto the court.
“I was just trying to keep our guys fired up because you know what? That felt like we tied it, quite frankly,” Brey said. “And the climate changed in the building, the vibe changed, our body language changed.”
Notre Dame made five of its final eight shots of the first half to trim the deficit to 22-19.
“(Brey’s technical) was kind of a culmination of how our team was playing,” said Cooley, who had nine rebounds to snap his streak of double-doubles at six. “We were all extremely frustrated, and then Coach Brey comes out with that and then gets the technical.
“It just showed how we were feeling and kind of let everything loose. If that happens, what are we going to do? We’re going to go out and play – and that’s just what we did. We went out and played and we came back and were down three at the half and just put it away in the second half.”
Panthers forward Lamar Patterson – the team’s scoring leader during Big East play –had the first basket after halftime, his only points of the game. Steven Adams’ layup followed to give Pitt a 26-19 lead.
But Brey called another timeout –and it again led to a momentum shift. The Irish scored 12 of the next 14 points to take their first lead since 1-0.
Baskets by Cameron Wright and James Robinson gave Pitt a 32-31 lead with 12 minutes remaining, but Robinson missed a 3 nearly a minute later. Atkins’ layup on the ensuing possession put Notre back ahead – and started a 12-2 run that put the Irish ahead 43-34 with 4:48 to go – and they never trailed again.
“Even when we were down early, we always knew we had a chance,” Grant said. “If we still could play defense, we could get back in the game.”