SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Ben Hansbrough for Big East player of the year? How about national player of the year, an award his brother won two seasons ago?
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey started the drums beating for his team's emotional leader after Hansbrough scored 25 points despite a tough start to lead No. 9 Notre Dame to a 76-69 victory against Rutgers on Sunday.
"When you step back a bit, look at this, and get away from the preseason hype machine, certainly he is a Big East player of the year candidate as well as national player of the year," Brey said. "Flat out. I mean, we are in the Top 10 and he has driven us into that position and we are in the hunt for the league title. It is starting to be really evaluated. Some people say 'Let's see what he does next game.' Well, he did it again."
After a slow start, Hansbrough took the game over. At one point he was 2 of 8 from the field, including 1 of 7 from beyond the 3-point line, but he used his drive-the-paint style to draw fouls and ended up making 11 of 13 free throws in a game that saw Notre Dame score only twice from the field in the last eight minutes.
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Hansbrough blamed part of his slow start on the early starting time.
"I think that was part of it, a Sunday game at noon," said the younger brother of Tyler Hansbrough who was chosen national player of the year for leading North Carolina to the national championship in 2009. "But you always have to be ready to play, and I don't think we were completely ready to play at the very beginning. We weren't ready to slide our feet and Coach Brey got on us a little bit."
Rutgers coach Mike Rice didn't put up much of an argument with Hansbrough receiving some honors.
"Hansbrough?" he questioned. "He just took the ball and manhandled us."
Jonathan Mitchell, who led Rutgers with 24 points, said Hansbrough "does a great job of using his body and using your weight against you to create fouls. Notre Dame did a great job of attacking us."
The Irish (19-4, 8-3) reclaimed sole possession of second place in the Big East behind No. 4 Pittsburgh and will host No. 15 Louisville on Wednesday.
Scott Martin had 14 points for Notre Dame and Tim Abromaitis added 10.
Jonathan Mitchell scored 24 points for Rutgers (12-11, 3-8) while Dane Miller added 11.
Rice wasn't about to argue about a big discrepancy between teams at the free throw line. Notre Dame was 27 of 34 the Scarlet Knights were only 8 of 12.
"You don't do anything with the referees in the Big East," he said. "They have their own fraternity. You just leave them alone and make adjustments and for the last two weeks we have. Believe me, some of those were fouls."
Brey said he knew Rutgers would be a tough opponent despite the records.
"It is just the ebb and flow of Big East play," he said. "I have not been happier about a win. You can kind of get into (a mindset) of what should happen because of the records, but Rutgers has tough kids and that's a group that beat us last year. They kept game pressure on and it was a hard game for us. We had to figure out how to get out of there. It was good for our group because we are going to be in a lot of these games the rest of the season."
Brey has pretty much let his five seniors play the bulk of the minutes recently.
"Today was a day for our old guys to win the game," he said. "We would make a mistake but they did not panic, they just moved onto the next play. We got the ball to the right guys at the foul line."
Notre Dame pulled away from a 7-7 tie with a 17-6 run that included five straight points and a nice assist by Hansbrough. The Irish stretched the lead to 25-15 before a 3-pointer by the Scarlet Knights' James Beatty started a 7-0 run and got Rutgers within 25-22.
Notre Dame led 37-33 at halftime with Hansbrough scoring 10 points.
The teams battled evenly in the second half before two free throws by Martin started an 8-2 run that made it 51-43 with 12:36 to play. Consecutive 3-pointers by Rutgers made it a two-point game before a layup by Hansbrough sparked an 11-2 run that gave the Irish a 62-51 lead.