Eric Atkins gets a hug from Ben Hansbrough after Atkins' game-winning shot on Thursday night.

Notre Dame Basketball Is Truly A Family Affair

July 26, 2015

In a split-second after Ben Hansbrough fired a bullet pass to Eric Atkins for buzzer-beating, fall-away left-handed lay-up in the winner-take-all $1 million The Basketball Tournament, former Fighting Irish players who comprised the Fighting Alumni sprinted onto the court and mobbed Hansbrough and Atkins.

Standouts from last season’s Irish team, Jerian Grant and Zach Auguste, stormed out of the stands to join the raucous celebration as the stunning play gave the University of Notre Dame alums a 79-77 victory against the Midwest Dream Squad Thursday night at DePaul’s McGrath-Phillips Arena. The Fighting Alumni, who won last season’s $500,000 winner-take-all tournament, rallied from a five-point deficit with 3:44 left.

Thursday’s Irish celebration was about more than the bright lights on the scoreboard.

It was about 12 players–all of whom earned degrees from Notre Dame–displaying the principles of the basketball culture cultivated by Irish head coach Mike Brey. Confidence, composure and togetherness–love for the University and love for each other–all played a part in the victory.

Confidence and composure surfaced when the Irish fell behind 70-65 with less than four minutes left.

Tim Abromaitis took a charge, and the Irish took command. Hansbrough connected on a baseline drive at 3:28.

Atkins pulled off a steal, drive and hoop at the 3:19 mark.

Those back-to-back lightning strikes pulled the Irish within a point at 70-69. After Midwest Dream Squad pulled ahead 72-69, a leaping steal by Tory Jackson turned into a spectacular off-balance three by Hansbrough to knot the score at 72-72 at 1:41.

A Tyrone Nash put-back was followed by a Hansbrough steal and dish to a streaking Atkins, who connected as he was hammered into the baseline wall. The and-one free throw gave the Irish a 77-75 lead with 10.7 seconds left.

A pair of free throws tied the score at 77-77 with 5.4 seconds, setting the stage for the Fighting Alumni play-makers to dig deep into the basketball lessons learned from Brey and stare down adversity.

“It’s a great culture we have at Notre Dame,” said Atkins. “All the guys want to play for each other. We’re all playing team ball. That’s a testament to how good of a coach that Coach Brey is. That’s just Coach Brey’s philosophy–keep playing, keep at it. We just stuck to our game plan, and everything fell into place.”

Brey loved the fact the Notre Dame experience carried on past the days players like Hansbrough and Atkins wore Irish colors.

“This is so powerful,” Brey said after the game. “It’s such a tribute to our program, that they come together to play in this. It means they had a pretty good experience with us for them to do this.

“I was really proud of that comeback,” said Brey, who provided commentary on the game with Fighting Irish Media broadcaster Jack Nolan for ESPN. “The guys were more composed than me. Down five with three left, I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know if they can do this.’ They scratch out three great defensive possessions, and Ben sets the tone with his toughness. I had flashbacks to 2011, his senior year, when Ben set the tone for us. He really did set the tone with toughness down the stretch, made every big play.”

Brey savored the post-game celebration.

“To see them celebrate and believe they were going to win–it was like they’ve all been there before, and that’s been our culture. As they’re making the plays and making the moves, I’m thinking, ‘That’s been our program.’ You’re really proud, as the leader, to see that happen.”

The Notre Dame Fighting Alumni roster featured Eric Atkins (2014), Tyrone Nash (2011), Tory Jackson (2010), Colin Falls (2007), Tim Abromaitis (2012), Carleton Scott (2011), Ben Hansbrough (2011), Rob Kurz (2008), Torin Francis (2006), Ryan Ayers (2009), Russell Carter (2007), Luke Harangody (2010), general manager Kieran Piller and coaches Jordan Cornette and Zach Hillesland.

Atkins, who was a freshman during Hansbrough’s senior season, said he was caught off-guard by Hansbrough’s pass.

“Knowing Ben, I did not think I was getting the ball,” Atkins said. “I was nervous when he threw it. I was like, ‘Oh, shoot. It’s coming to me.’ But all I had to do was finish it. I finished it with my left hand. I was nervous about the other defender coming over to block it, but I got it up quick enough.”

Hansbrough credited Atkins with a brilliant maneuver.

“That’s a really smart play by Eric,” Hansbrough said. “His man got caught watching. Eric saw it and went back door. It was actually a really tough lay-up by Eric, a fall-away left-handed lay-up. We really had to claw and dig down. It was a hard-fought game.”

Hansbrough scored 23 points and kicked out six assists. Atkins contributed 18 points. Nash notched 17, and Abromaitis added 12.

When the Fighting Alumni fell behind by 10 points in the first half, Hansbrough triggered a surge that led the Irish to a 39-35 halftime lead. That turnaround came shortly after Hansbrough worked in a brief consultation with Brey during the game.

Hansbrough brought the ball up the court and paused in front of the broadcast table where Brey was stationed.

“Ben came by and said, ‘What should we do?'” Brey said. “I said, ‘Ball screen for you in the middle of the floor and drive the heck out of the ball, and see what happens.’

“He came up after and said thanks. I said, ‘When things break down, ball screen for you in the middle of the floor.’ He said, ‘I got it.’

“When they were down five with three minutes to go, I’m thinking I jinxed them because I decided to do the telecast. It was thrilling to watch and really not surprising. Their backs were against the wall, and many of those guys have had their backs against the wall in similar situations. Ben Hansbrough sets one heck of a tone. Some things never change.

He made all the big plays.” Hansbrough, though, said the credit for the comeback belonged to Brey.

“This is Coach Brey’s brotherhood here. We all learned how to play under him.”

by Curt Rallo, special correspondent

The Fighting Alumni saw their dream of defending their title in the winner-take-all TBT event come to an end the following evening (Friday, July 24) after dropping an 89-84 overtime decision to Ants Alumni.