Notre Dame did not figure to give Pitt much of a run Monday night. For one, the Panthers had been nearly invincible the past few years at the Petersen Events Center, where the Panthers had won 51 of their previous 52 contests.
For another, the Fighting Irish had lost their first three Big East road games by an average of 19 points per game, and looked terrible in doing so with a pair of 22-point defeats to unranked teams.
But Notre Dame coach Mike Brey reverted to an old game plan that the Fighting Irish discovered out of necessity a year ago, and it helped him snap Pitt's 20-game home winning streak.
No. 15 Notre Dame held the ball on every possession and played some lockdown defense to beat No. 2 Pitt, 56-51, before a stunned crowd of 12,591. It was Pitt's first loss at the Petersen Events Center since Georgetown toppled the Panthers 369 days ago.
Notre Dame forged its run to the NCAA tournament last season by burning the shot clock on every possession after superstar Luke Harangody went down with an injury. The Irish used the formula to beat Pitt twice last season, including a Big East tournament game in which they held the Panthers to a season-low 45 points.
But Monday night was the first time Brey implemented the old game plan this season. The game plan worked to perfection again. The Panthers were clearly out of their comfort zone, and the 51 points were the fewest the Panthers have scored in a game all season.
"I wouldn't say it was necessarily them playing great defense," Pitt senior Gilbert Brown said. "It was more us rushing and being impatient. It was a little selfishness and us not being able to do what we did in the past game that got us here. We relied on our passing and skills and every other player, and we kind of fell short in that category. We did things that were uncharacteristic of ourselves."
All of it contributed to Pitt's first loss since Dec. 11. The Panthers, who had won their previous nine games, ascended to No. 2 in the polls earlier in the day on the strength of their victory against Syracuse last week.
But Notre Dame's style of play bogged down the high-scoring Panthers and never allowed them to play the game they wanted to play. Notre Dame (17-4, 6-3) has beaten Pitt (19-2, 7-1) in four of the past five meetings, and the Irish utilized the slow-down game in each of the past three victories against the Panthers.
"Sometimes we get a little impatient," Brown said. "We've been playing up and down with a lot of teams where we're able to push the ball in transition and screen. We never really had a team that slowed it down where we had to play half-court defense and offense the whole game. All the credit is due to them. They're great at what they do."
Pitt led for most of the game, but the Irish never allowed the Panthers to push the lead past six points.
The Panthers led for the final 12:58 of the first half and the first 12 minutes of the second half. The Irish took their first lead since the opening minutes when Ben Hansbrough made a 3-pointer with 8:29 remaining to make it 42-41.
The Panthers never had a lead again. Following a Brad Wanamaker turnover, Carleton Scott converted a rare four-point play when he made a 3-pointer and was fouled by Wanamaker. That pushed the lead to five.
The Irish shredded Pitt's man-to-man defense in the second half, making 11 of their 18 shots from the field.
Down the stretch, when the Panthers needed to make a defensive stop, they had no answer for Hansbrough, who scored eight of his game-high 19 points in the final 4:29. Hansbrough clinched the game with a bucket with 16 seconds remaining to make it 56-51.
That came after an off-balance layup attempt from Wanamaker at the other end when the Panthers trailed by three with a minute remaining.
Coach Jamie Dixon had one timeout remaining, but he decided not to take it. Wanamaker drove to the basket out of control and missed badly on his attempt.
"We had a play called, so we wanted to run that," Dixon said. "We felt if we had a transition opportunity we wanted to attack on that. All game long we kind of rushed some things. We played in traffic a little more than we normally do. We didn't make the plays at the end that we needed to make in a game like this."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230.