SOUTH BEND, Ind. - The odor of a loss as bad as the one Villanova suffered against Georgetown might have stuck with the Wildcats last night, a stench with the potential to begin eroding the confidence they had built all season.
But the 11th-ranked Wildcats responded with one of their best games of the season at both ends of the court and used a 16-1 second-half run to take control in a 77-60 Big East Conference victory over Notre Dame at the Joyce Center.
With the victory, the Cats (24-6 overall, 12-5 Big East) assured themselves of no worse than a fifth-place finish in the conference. They still have a shot at fourth, which they can secure if Marquette loses tomorrow night at Pittsburgh and Villanova wins at the Pavilion on Thursday vs. Providence.
A fourth-place finish means a bye through the first two rounds of next week's Big East tournament.
After a season-high 20 turnovers in Saturday's 56-54 loss to Georgetown, the Wildcats committed a season-low five last night. Scottie Reynolds played what coach Jay Wright said was "one of his best games as a point guard all year" with 23 points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals and one turnover.
With Reynolds draining 6 of 7 attempts from behind the three-point line, things opened up on the inside for Dante Cunningham, who contributed 18 points and eight rebounds.
"I was just patient, reading the defenses a lot better, playing at ease, and just doing a lot of the little things, too," said Reynolds, who had six turnovers against Georgetown.
The Wildcats heeded Wright's advice to feed Cunningham more in the post. Cunningham took 18 shots, at one point hitting baskets on four straight possessions to help touch off Villanova's game-deciding run.
But the number that warmed Wright's heart was the 60 points scored by Notre Dame (16-13, 7-10), 18 below its average.
The Fighting Irish, whose chances of an NCAA berth virtually disappeared as they dropped to 3-9 against top-25 teams, shot just 39 percent from the field.
"It excites me, it really does," Wright said. "This is what we've been working for. I thought we played well defensively against Georgetown getting 25 turnovers, but we were just horrendous offensively. This was our best defensive game."
The 6-foot-7 Shane Clark played excellent defense in the second half on 6-8 Luke Harangody, the Big East's leading scorer, who scored 18 points.
Germantown Academy graduate Ryan Ayers had a game-high 25 for Notre Dame.
Wright was pleased that his seniors - Cunningham, Clark, Anderson, and reserve Frank Tchuisi - took charge after the Georgetown loss and prevented one setback from turning into another.
"Sometimes we have a clunker like we did Saturday, but they always come back," he said.
"We never dwell on a loss," Cunningham said. "When we lose, it's like, 'All right, we need to get better. We've got to come back strong.' That's what's great about this team."