SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP)—Notre Dame struggled just as much on offense against Villanova as it did in a 15-point loss 10 days earlier. The Fighting Irish played a lot better defensively, though.
The 22nd-ranked Irish held the Wildcats to 39 points fewer than they scored in their first meeting, holding Villanova without a field goal in the final 3:46 of a 66-63 victory Saturday.
“I think this is a step forward for us psychologically,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “For us to have to scratch and claw and grind—we haven’t had to do this here against a good team.”
The Wildcats (14-6, 3-4 Big East) led much of the game and went ahead 60-57 on a 3-pointer by Shane Clark with 3:47 left, but didn’t make a shot from the field the rest of the way.
The Irish tied the score on a 3 by Ryan Ayers, his first basket of the game. He added a pair of free throws moments later to give Notre Dame a 62-60 lead.
Villanova had the ball, but Scottie Reynolds lost control and Luke Harangody dove for it. The ball popped free and Colin Falls scored a fast-break basket.
“Getting that thing loose there, that was the play of the game,” Brey said. “It probably was the key play to break it open.”
Falls added a pair of free throws with 38 seconds left to give the Irish (17-4, 5-3) a six-point lead and their 15th straight win at home. Dating to last season, the Irish have won 17 straight at the Joyce Center—the third-longest streak in school history. They won 24 straight from 1973-74 and 22 in a row from 1977-78.
Notre Dame, playing before its first home sellout crowd of the season, held Villanova to 33.3 percent shooting—well below the 57 percent the Wildcats shot in becoming the first team to score more than 100 points against Notre Dame in a non-overtime game in eight years.
Villanova had 25 points at halftime—half as much as it did en route to its 102-87 victory over the Irish—but still held a four-point halftime lead as both teams struggled offensively.
While the teams combined for 189 points in their first meeting, for a while Saturday it appeared they wouldn’t combine for 100.
“Notre Dame did a great job of forcing us to do things we didn’t want to do,” said Reynolds, who led the Wildcats with 19 points.
Villanova had two chances to tie it in the final 18 seconds, but Reggie Redding missed an open 3-pointer and Curtis Sumpter also missed a 3. Sumpter threw up a length-of-the-court shot at the buzzer that was short and wide.
Dante Cunningham, Mike Nardi and Sumpter had 11 points each for Villanova.
Falls led Notre Dame with 23 points, Russell Carter added 14 and Rob Kurz had 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Brey praised the clutch play of Ayers, especially coming off a rough week in which his roommate, Kyle McAlarney, was suspended from school after his arrest on a marijuana possession charge last month. McAlarney plans to return to Notre Dame next season.
“Here’s a guy who didn’t play against St. John’s and lost his roommate on Monday, too. Tough week for Ryan Ayers,” Brey said. “He’s really shot it well in practice, but he really hasn’t shot it well in the game, but to knock that one down and to knock the free throws down was certainly huge.”
Most of the Irish players wrote the No. 23 on the back of their shoes in honor of McAlarney.
“I think that he’s still on this team,” Falls said. “From our perspective, he’s still with us and I think he’s coming back. Well, I don’t know what the deal is with that, but he’s a good friend of ours and we’re not bailing on him.”