Notre Dame guard Ben Hansbrough turned in the ultimate performance Tuesday night.
Charged with being the primary defender against Connecticut guard Kemba Walker – the nation's leading scorer with a 26.7 average – Hansbrough met the challenge head on and exceeded anyone's expectations.
Hansbrough helped limit Walker to 8-of-23 shooting for 19 points, and he scored a game-high 21 points for No. 14 Notre Dame (13-2, 2-1 Big East) in a 73-70 win over No. 8 Connecticut (11-2, 1-2).
"It was a huge effort," Irish forward Tim Abromaitis said. "Playing 40 minutes, I'm not sure how he did it. Walker is one of the best players in the country, and he was really able to limit him and frustrate him and force him into some tough shots. On (defense), he was great.
"And then on offense, him and (guard Eric Atkins) were able to run the show and control the ball. He scored a lot when we needed it, and that was huge to."
Hansbrough scored 12 points after halftime, and he also had five rebounds, four assists and a steal.
"That's a heck of a workout to guard (Walker) and then score 21, make key plays," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "Ben did everything you can do on the floor tonight, and he even argued with his coach during the timeout. But that is our relationship. I love him. He makes me confident every day in practice."
Hansbrough said playing against NBA guards like the New York Knicks' Raymond Felton over the summer helped him prepare to guard Walker, who missed all five of his three-pointers Tuesday.
"I think (Walker) is one of the best guards in the country, and that was a great challenge for me," Hansbrough said. "When I see somebody as talented as him I look at that as a challenge. I was thrilled to get that challenge to guard Kemba. It was a fun night to play against him."
Off at the line
Abromaitis scored 19 points against Connecticut on Tuesday.
But it was two points that got away at the end that made the victory more of a thriller than it needed to be.
Abromaitis missed two free throws with 9.2 seconds to play and Notre Dame clinging to a 73-30 lead. The missed freebies didn't sink the Irish as Huskies guard Shabazz Napier missed a desperation three-pointer with 2.4 seconds to play badly.
But Abromaitis, a 75 percent free-throw shooter, went 4 for 10 at the line against the Huskies.
The senior went 6 for 9 from the field and 3 for 5 on three-pointers.
In the first half, Abromaitis went 4 for 4 from the floor and hit all three three-pointers he put up.
"It just happened to be one of those nights for me," Abromaitis said. "I don't know. It felt good. I will just have to adjust and come back and make them the next game."
Tuesday's victory was Notre Dame's first game without forward Carleton Scott.
The senior captain suffered a tear in his left hamstring in Saturday's 70-58 loss to No. 5 Syracuse, and Brey said he doesn't expect Scott to return until the end of January.
Brey said the Irish didn't change much in their approach to the game without Scott and his 11.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
"The only thing that I had talked about to the team was that we had been there before," said Brey, referencing losing former star forward Luke Harangody for five games at the end of last season. "I was proud of Jack Cooley and Joey Brooks, who gave us good minutes tonight at key times, and they will continue to have to do that.
"The one thing not having Carleton does, though, is it makes Scott Martin a four-man. When a big man chases him around he's pretty good. I think that he was excited because he could get to the post a little more than usual and it seemed like he took advantage of some of those matchups. I told him before the jump ball that there is nobody in the gym that can guard you tonight, and he was strong right out of the gate."
Martin finished with 13 points, scoring 10 in the first half. Martin also hit back-to-back three-pointers to give Notre Dame a 13-3 lead 3 ½ minutes into the game.
"I think that was a key to get off to a good start without Carleton because the guys then knew we were going to be fine," Brey said.
Playing with fouls
The Irish did have to play Martin and forward Tyrone Nash for extended periods of time in the second half with four fouls with Scott not available.
Martin picked up his fourth foul 2 ½ minutes into the second half, and Nash was whistled for his fourth foul with 12:58 to play.
Both seniors shuffled in and out of the lineup with four fouls, and neither fouled out.
"You got to stay physical out there, you can't be soft out there," said Nash, who finished with 11 points, of playing in foul trouble. "I think we did a good job playing with four fouls. It's a tough thing, but we managed it and stayed in the game."
Guard Eric Atkins was inserted into the starting lineup with Scott out Tuesday night.
The freshman made his second career start and had a solid, if not spectacular performance, against Connecticut.
Atkins scored seven points, had five assists, three steals and didn't turn the ball over once in 39 minutes.
"You are asking him to start, he's got Kemba Walker guarding him and I thought he did really solid," Brey said. "He's gotten better defensively, keeping people in front of him. He made some really key plays for use. He handled the ball, and gave us some stuff in transition when we needed some easy buckets. I'm really happy for him."