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Men’s Basketball: Irish take season opener despite poor shooting

By Mike Monaco | Monday, November 12, 2012

From beyond the three-point line, Irish senior forward Jack Cooley stared down his defender, who dared him to shoot. The 6-foot-9 big man launched the first three-pointer of his career and nailed it.

Cooley’s three-pointer gave the No. 22 Irish an early 9-4 lead in Saturday’s season-opener against Evansville in the opening round of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. Cooley, who scored those first nine points, and Notre Dame (1-0) never looked back in their 58-49 victory over the Purple Aces (0-1).

“I’ve done it in practice before, and all my friends have been texting me to do it and I was just open and I was like, ‘if [the defender] is this disrespectful – he’s 12 feet off me – I have to just shoot one of these,’” Cooley said of the three-pointer. “And then I hit it and I was pretty excited.”

The preseason first team all-Big East selection powered the Irish with 19 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks while graduate student forward Scott Martin netted six points and 17 rebounds. The two forwards closed out the game when Cooley delivered an overhead pass to Martin, who threw down an emphatic dunk to cement the victory.

“It was one of those days where you couldn’t get a shot to go in, so it’s nice to get a nice easy one,” Martin said of the game-sealing dunk. “I took a little frustration out on the rim there.”

While Martin and the Irish struggled to shoot the ball consistently – Notre Dame shot 40 percent from the field and 24 percent from three-point range – the defense was dominant in holding Evansville to just 48 points. The Purple Aces shot 31 percent from the field and senior guard Colt Ryan, who averaged 20.5 points per game last season and was named to the Missouri Valley all-conference first team, was held to two points in the first half and 15 total on 6-for-14 shooting.

Irish coach Mike Brey said the defense keyed the victory against a strong opponent.

“I’m pleased with our win because I think we beat a really good team and I think that’s a win that can be part of our résumé,” Brey said. “One of the things we talked about in practice on Wednesday was our defensive identity improving and really being able to rely on it. And that’s the only way we won the game tonight: 31 percent shooting by them.”

Notre Dame led by as many as 10 points in the first half, but the Purple Aces kept it close and went into halftime trailing 28-21. Brey said he was pleased with the way his team responded to Evansville’s resiliency.

“[We were] very poised,” Brey said of his team. “Very poised. One of the things I said before the scouting report the other day was to remind them of who they are, especially that starting nucleus. Never panic. Always poised.

“Every time they made it interesting, I thought we really executed or got a key stop or made a heck of a play. I think that will do us well over the course of five months.”

The Irish will have a quick turnaround as they take on Monmouth on Monday in the finale of the opening round of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. In Friday’s season-opener, the Hawks (1-0) defeated Hofstra, 91-62.

Brey said he is expecting to face a playing style like that of former North Carolina coach Dean Smith.

“[Monmouth coach] King Rice [is] a former North Carolina guard, I hear they’re going a lot of old Dean Smith’s run-and-jump [defense],” Brey said. “[Saturday] we had [former] Indiana coach [Bob] Knight stuff, on Monday we have Dean Smith stuff, which is interesting. And a lot of run-and-jump, trapping the pass, trapping the dribble, which is how Dean Smith played a lot before the three-point line.”

The Irish will also look to make the most out of the Saturday-Monday set of games. Notre Dame has four such two-game stretches in the Big East portion of the schedule.

“I talked to [the team],” Brey said. “I said this is a good warm-up for four pivotal Saturday-Mondays in Big East season, so let’s practice this thing and be really good at it.”

Cooley said the Irish are just looking to play as many games as possible.

“It’s good always to play more games because you don’t learn better outside of a game,” Cooley said. “A game is where you learn the most about your team. So the more games you can have the closer together, the better it is.”

Notre Dame battles Monmouth to close out the opening stage of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic on Monday at 7 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu