Notre Dame proves its tourney mettle without Ben Hansbrough

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Mike Brey’s Notre Dame teams don’t have a reputation for being great in March.

In 10 years at the school, he’s gone to six NCAA Tournaments and made just one Sweet 16. That’s not terrible, but it certainly isn’t great either. Coaches have been fired with more impressive resumes.

After No. 7 Notre Dame’s 70-67 win over No. 16 UConn, it might finally be time to bet on the Irish.

Notre Dame has struggled on the road this season. The win at Pitt was nice, but of the five other quality teams the Irish played away from South Bend beat them by at least 14. Still, Notre Dame went into Gampel Pavilion and had used a 27-14 run to open a 60-50 second half lead on UConn. The Irish looked like they were getting ready to pull away from the Huskies when Ben Hansbrough made one of the dumbest plays of the season.

Hansbrough is Notre Dame’s starting point guard and leader. He’s a favorite to win the Big East player of the year award. And he was in rhythm, hitting jumpers from everywhere on the court while also handing out five assists. But when Mike Brey reinserted him into the game with just over eight minutes left, the first thing Hansbrough did was throw a shoulder into UConn freshman Shabazz Napier as he tried to create space off the ball.

Whistle.

Hansbrough was done.

And the Irish had to figure out how to traverse the final eight minutes of the game without their star, who doubles as the team’s best defender.

It didn’t start out well. Kemba Walker and Napier sparked a 15-0 run that put the Huskies up 65-60. But Notre Dame didn’t fold. Ty Nash finished an and-one in the post. Scott Martin and Tim Abromaitis knocked down jumpers. All of a sudden, Notre Dame was back up 69-65, and despite missing three of four from the foul line down the stretch, Notre Dame hung on.

That’s impressive. Being able to overcome the run and the momentum the Huskies had on the road* without their best player is not easy.

(*UConn has lost to Syracuse and Marquette at “home” in recent weeks, but both of those games were played at the XL Center in Hartford, which is 30 minutes from the UConn campus. The Huskies are a much better team at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, where today’s game was played.)

And it is the kind of performance that should legitimize the argument that the Irish are a real threat to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.