"You just know when the game's on the line, he's going to take the shot," Wildcats coach Jay Wright said of Thomas, an all-America candidate. "Sometimes, you can't stop [the other team]. You have to make a play at the other end."
Thomas had a 21-point second half to lead all scorers with 26 points. Torrian Jones, a 6-foot-4 senior who attended Pennsbury High, finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds, while three other Notre Dame players also finished in double figures. Russell Carter, a 6-4 freshman from Paulsboro High, did not play.
Guards Allan Ray and Randy Foye each scored 18 points to pace the Wildcats, and 6-10 center/forward Jason Fraser pulled down a career-high 17 rebounds to go with three blocks.
Both Villanova guard Mike Nardi (15 points) and forward Curtis Sumpter (14) had chances to close the gap when Notre Dame led by 78-74. But Nardi uncharacteristically missed two free throws before Sumpter made one of two with 48.6 seconds left.
Three foul shots by Thomas gave the Irish an 81-75 lead with 27.5 seconds left.
"It just comes down to us executing at the end of the game," Ray said.
It was the Big East opener for the Wildcats, who fell to 8-5 overall. Notre Dame, which had been winless in eight games against Villanova in league play, won its sixth straight to move to 8-3 overall and 2-0 in the Big East.
The Irish defeated West Virginia, 63-52, on Wednesday in their Big East opener.
The Wildcats, coming off a 73-57 loss to Memphis on Tuesday, trailed by 38-34 at halftime yesterday.
The Irish played all but three minutes of the first half without 6-11 forward Torin Francis. Francis, who entered the game averaging 16.5 points, picked up two quick fouls and was pulled by Brey, the former Delaware coach now in his fourth year at Notre Dame.
There were three lead changes during the first 20 minutes, but after Notre Dame went up by 18-17, the Irish didn't fall behind for the rest of the half.
'Nova tied the score at 41-41 when Nardi canned a three-pointer, and the Wildcats rallied to go up by 55-48 with 11:31 to go in the game. Getting baskets from all of its scorers, 'Nova kept the pressure on Notre Dame.
And the Irish responded.
After Foye used a runner to put 'Nova ahead by 72-66 with 3:27 left, a trey by Quinn made it a three-point game. And following a tip-in by Fraser, a 15-footer by Tom Timmermans of the Irish set up Thomas' game-tying basket.
"You have to give Notre Dame credit for hanging in there when we had a chance to put them away," Wright said. "They made plays. We just have to get better as a basketball team. I believe in this team."
Contact staff writer Kevin Tatum