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Men’s Basketball: South Florida loses, which means Notre Dame wins

Douglas Farmer | Thursday, March 8, 2012

NEW YORK CITY — Third-seeded Notre Dame needed every minute of regulation and overtime to hold off No. 6 South Florida on Thursday in Madison Square Garden. After 44 minutes and 31.8 seconds, it was an Eric Atkins 3-pointer which delivered a 57-53 victory for the Irish.

“We had it and I thought we just let it slip away in regulation,” Bulls coach Stan Heath said. “We made some mistakes and didn’t make plays we should have made.”

Freshman guard Pat Connaughton forced the overtime period by making the first free throw of a one-and-one with 26.1 seconds left in regulation. With the score tied at 45, South Florida failed to get a shot off before the buzzer.

The Atkins dagger came after junior forward Jack Cooley blocked a Bulls layup, forcing a shot clock violation with 1:02 left in overtime. Notre Dame utilized its “burn” offense, running nearly every second off the 35-second shot clock. Atkins passed the ball to sophomore guard Jerian Grant with only 10 seconds left on the shot clock. Grant drove, swung the ball to fifth-year forward Scott Martin who found Atkins for the 54-50 lead.

“We believed that we could win getting to the overtime,” Atkins, a sophomore guard, said. “I don’t think we’ve lost in overtime yet. I just really believed in our team and we stayed poised down the stretch.”

South Florida struggled on the ensuing offensive possession, nearly turning it over, before Hugh Robertson sank a 3 with 2.5 seconds left. A few Notre Dame free throws later, and all drama was concluded on an eventful day at Madison Square Garden.

Notre Dame struggled to make any shots throughout the majority of the second half, going 12 minutes with only one converted field goal beginning at the 1:50 mark of the first half. Sophomore guard Alex Dragicevich snapped that skid with two bullets from deep on his way to eight crucial points. The latter of his bombs brought the Irish within two of the Bulls, and a Pat Connaughton 3-pointer yielded a one-point lead with 6:42 left in regulation. Those nine points, combined with a Connaughton lay-up on the first possession after the break, were the only points from the field for Notre Dame in the second half. The two combined for 14 of the team’s 17 second-half points, and 20 points overall.

“We wanted to focus on defense,” Connaughton said. “They’re a defensive powerhouse and we wanted to show that we were just as good on defense. To make shots down the stretch really shows that we have another gear and a clutchness about us.”

Cooley struggled throughout the game, finishing with nine points and one rebound, well below his 14.6 points and 10.2 rebounds averages in conference play. Martin picked up the slack, though, finishing with 10 points and 12 rebounds in 45 minutes. Grant also played all 45 minutes.

“I was on Jack the whole game,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “We’re going to need more than that tomorrow to stay alive.”

Tomorrow the Irish will take on No.7 Louisville at 9 p.m. in a semifinal. Top-seeded Syracuse faces No. 4 Cincinnati in the other. Notre Dame has never won a Big East semifinal.

“I really believe this group of all my teams is most equipped to get to Saturday night,” Brey said. It’s the next step — I think our program has been consistent and solid in the Big East, but getting to Saturday night would be great.”

Notre Dame and Louisville last met Jan. 7, when the Irish escaped on the road with a 67-65 double-overtime victory. The two teams have tallied seven overtimes in their last six meetings.

Eric Prister contributed to this report.