Notre Dame could have taken the night off against DePaul, but with the Big East race so tight, every game counts.
NOTRE DAME — Given the events of Saturday, Feb. 9, no one would have blamed Notre Dame for taking the night off.
In fact, the crowd had already called in sick. After filling the Purcell Pavilion to the brim for the 5-overtime marathon with Louisville last weekend, the Notre Dame student section was deafeningly empty for Wednesday’s tilt with DePaul.
The crowd that did show up was subdued, saving its loudest cheer in regulation for when football head coach Brian Kelly appeared on the JumboTron and waved.
For most of the contest, Notre Dame looked like it wanted to follow suit. Save a 6-minute stretch near the end of the first half, the Irish sleep-walked to another overtime with a Blue Demon team that had lost eight straight.
Eric Atkins had played 60 of 65 minutes on Saturday, while Pat Connaughton was limping through an ankle injury sustained in his 56-minute performance.
“Just coming off that game, we could’ve been tired and just said, ‘We’ll let one get away,’” Jerian Grant said.
But the No. 21 Irish couldn’t.
In a college basketball season that seems to have placed a curse on whichever team is named No. 1, when Indiana, Michigan, Duke, Kansas and Louisville shuffled around the Top 5 like its a desperate game of musical chairs, every win by a Top 25 team brings them that much closer to a prime spot if and when those teams fall.
The chaos has also ebbed into the Big East, where conference leaders Syracuse fell to Connecticut Wednesday night. The Orange, Georgetown and Marquette are all 8-3 in league play, just one game ahead of 8-4 Notre Dame and Pittsburgh.
Connecticut and Louisville (7-4) and Cincinnati and St. John’s (7-5) are nipping at Notre Dame’s heels.
So forgive Notre Dame for not taking a day off against a DePaul team in free fall.
“I’m in that mode all the time in the Big East: ‘Survive and advance,’” Brey said after Notre Dame’s overtime win against DePaul. “Somebody said, ‘Well, are you going to rest Connaughton Wednesday and save him for the weekend?’ I said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I need all my guys in this league.’”
“Our margin for error, as you’ve seen, it’s like this,” Brey said, holding two fingers closely together. “We need all hands on deck, so everything is survive and advance. That’s why we were burning one time. We’ll do everything we need to do to get a league win. I don’t care if it’s against a team that’s 8-2 or 2-8. Just do what you’ve got to do to get a league win.”
In early January, a top spot in the Big East tournament was the furthest thing from Brey’s mind.
“When we lost three out of four and (Scott) Martin went down, the regular season title, I wasn’t even thinking about that at the time,” he said. “Now a double game bye? I’m thinking about that a little more.”
With a trip to Providence (13-11, 5-7) on Saturday and to Pittsburgh (20-5, 8-4) on Monday next on the slate, Brey is taking the next few days to recharge his exhausted team, including letting Connaughton recover from his ankle injury.
“There’s not a tougher athlete at this school,” Brey said of Connaughton. “He’s a tough dude, so he will not have to sweat again until layup lines at Providence. We’ll just rest him until then, and some other guys. We’re back to needing some rest here almost for two days.”