With 3:20 remaining in Wednesday's rout of Rutgers, Notre Dame point guard Chris Quinn did something uncharacteristic. He sat down.
Just a few moments before, the senior had trotted off the court with teammate Torin Francis to a standing ovation. As Quinn reached the bench, Irish coach Mike Brey congratulated his co-captain and added a half-serious warning.
"I said, 'Great job; stay ready - because the way things are going, I don't know what's gonna happen here,'" Brey said after the game.
The coach and player chuckled because Brey was only kidding, but through 10 Big East games, the Irish coach wasn't wrong to remain on his guard despite a sizeable lead. After all, the theme defining Notre Dame's season following a complete thumping of Rutgers seems in line with Brey's attitude as the game ended: "Who knows?"
"Who knew?" was more like it on Wednesday.
Granted, Rutgers played without a couple significant contributors who were sidelined by injury. And the Scarlet Knights are now only 3-7 in the conference, just one game ahead of the Irish.
But Notre Dame knew it needed a win and that it could beat Rutgers. It didn't know the final score would be 90-63 and that the Irish would win by more points (27) than the sum of their loss margins in their eight conference defeats (26).
It didn't know that playing both Francis and Rick Cornett for significant minutes would result in 13-for-20 combined shooting, 35 points and 14 rebounds.
But as Brey said to open the post-game remarks: "Well, we'll take that."
The Irish will take the win because they desperately needed it. There are several teams Notre Dame legitimately can catch at this point for a spot in the Big East top-12 - and a bid to the postseason conference tournament in March.
Syracuse (4-5) and Providence (4-6) sit only two wins ahead of the Irish. Saint John's (3-6) is one win away. Rutgers (3-7) is one ahead with the tiebreaker going to Notre Dame. Louisville (3-7) is just one up, but the Cardinals own the tiebreaker, and DePaul (2-8) and Notre Dame have identical records, though the Blue Demons won the only meeting thus far this season.
So, as the Irish players and coaches have reiterated through the long losing streaks, there still is a chance. There's no doubt about it. Other teams have games to play against the same Georgetown, Villanova and West Virginia squads that scarred Notre Dame's postseason face.
But who knows which Irish team will show up even for its next meeting in a home game against 0-9 South Florida (USF) next Wednesday? USF wants a victory just as badly, if not worse, than anyone. And not to minimize the Rutgers win, but Seton Hall, Marquette and Connecticut - who all remain on the Irish schedule - will have more than one scoring option for Notre Dame to stop.
Rutgers has been struggling, and it showed. But so has Notre Dame, and that is why the win means so much - and why it could be easy for Irish players to feel immediately relieved. But Brey said he has that attitude shift covered.
"I'll show 'em 2-8," Brey said, emphasizing his team must remember its lowly conference record.
Wednesday night's romp was impressive, if a 2-8 team can be described as such. But the conversation ends there, because as much as Notre Dame needs the momentum, it also needs a healthy dose of realism.
The Irish are still in trouble, and this is only one step to get themselves out. Seeing Quinn on the bench at the end of a game is promising, but it probably won't happen again this season.
But then again, who knows?
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.
Contact Pat Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org