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Declawing the Bearcats

Mike Monaco | Monday, February 25, 2013

The story began the same, but the roles and the result were different.

Propelled by a hot start, No. 25 Notre Dame defeated Cincinnati 62-41 on Sunday afternoon at a sold-out Purcell Pavilion behind physical defensive and rebounding efforts.

“I am so pleased and excited about our defensive and rebounding identity that we’ve really done now two games in a row, Pittsburgh and [Cincinnati],” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “I thought we did a great job of staying in front of people who wanted to beat us off the dribble all night. We did a great job of keeping it to one and done. And then you add to that 40 minutes of very good offensive efficiency and you have a great team win.”

The Irish (22-6, 10-5 Big East) dominated on both ends of the floor in the early stages of the first half and opened up a 16-point lead. Notre Dame held the cold-shooting Bearcats (19-9, 7-8) to a school-record low 15 first-half points in a Big East game. The 41 total points allowed by Notre Dame were the fewest allowed in a conference game for the Irish.

Leading 6-4 in the opening minutes, Notre Dame went on a 16-2 run en route to a record-setting first half. The Irish outrebounded Cincinnati 21-11 in the first stanza, shot 50 percent from the field and limited the Bearcats to 28 percent shooting.

On Monday against Pittsburgh, the Panthers were the team that dominated in the early going, as the Irish made just one of their first 19 shots and fell behind 19-3 before coming back to down the Panthers 51-42 behind similarly stout defensive and rebounding performances. On Sunday, Notre Dame buried its first four shots, including a pair of jumpers from senior forward Tom Knight.

“With the [Feb. 16] Providence [game] and the Pitt game, we actually didn’t have very good starts, and we had to fight back in both of those games,” Knight said. “Coming out this game, hitting those few shots, we’re like ‘Ok, we’re in our groove. We’re back. Let’s keep this going. Let’s keep building off it.'”

Unlike Monday when Pittsburgh squandered its lead, Notre Dame did keep building off its early first-half lead and continued its dominance in the second half. The Irish had a sterling start after the intermission, as junior guard Eric Atkins made a shifty layup and buried a corner three to give the Irish a 34-15 lead.

“We always say the first four minutes is the most important time of the game so for us to come out there and get those five quick points was huge for us because that kind of takes the will out of a team after already being down at halftime,” Atkins said. “So I think we did a good job of coming out and really making the lead even bigger.”

The Bearcats threatened in the second half and sliced the lead to 39-30 by forcing turnovers, but Notre Dame responded and extended the advantage back to 62-41 with 1:17 remaining.

The Irish held Cincinnati to 32 percent shooting from the field and outrebounded the Bearcats 43-27. Cincinnati’s top two scorers, junior guard Sean Kilpatrick and senior guard Cashmere Wright, scored six points and zero points, respectively.

The Notre Dame backcourt had more success, as junior guards Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins scored 13 and 11 points, respectively. Senior forwards Tom Knight and Jack Cooley added 12 and 11 points, respectively.

With the victory, the Irish are situated at fifth place in the Big East, just one-and-a-half games back of conference-leading Georgetown and a half-game behind Syracuse, Louisville and Marquette. The Irish square off with the No. 17 Golden Eagles on Saturday, looking to maneuver their way into the top four in the conference and claim a double-bye for the Big East tournament.

Brey said his team is confident heading into postseason play.

“I also think they’re feeling good because it’s getting to be time,” Brey said. “[Atkins and Grant] love big games. They’ve delivered. They like when the lights are bright and I know they’re feeling, ‘Here’s March right around the corner.’ They also know we’re in the hunt for a [Big East] title. They’re excited about that.”

Eight players played at least eight minutes in the first half, including senior center Garrick Sherman and freshman forwards Zach Auguste and Cam Biedscheid. Auguste reeled in eight first-half rebounds.

Irish graduate student guard Scott Martin, who has missed the last nine games with knee soreness, dressed but did not play.

The Irish square off with Marquette on Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu