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Gastelum: Defense made all the difference for the Irish (March 14)

Andrew Gastelum | Friday, March 15, 2013

NEW YORK – It makes sense that revenge is best served cold, because that’s exactly how the Irish started this game.

A full nine minutes, 50 seconds and 100 anxiety attacks into the game, Notre Dame had only four points. Marquette jumped out to a 13-point lead. Senior guard Junior Cadougan had more points two minutes into the game than Notre Dame had at the nine-minute mark.

It was March 2, 2013 all over again. The only thing different was the Bradley Center had become the Garden.

Just two weeks ago, Marquette jumped out to an 18-6 lead with 13:16 left in the first half. Thursday night, it was 7-0 to start the game and 17-4 with 10:45 left in the half. From the get-go, the pace of the game was too much for the Irish. From the get-go, the pace of the game was too quick for the Irish. It’s worth repeating because that is where Thursday’s game seemed to be headed.

It was the same ol’ Notre Dame. Then and now.

So how in du Lac did this game reverse its course?

Did Bill Clinton slip in a sequel to his speech at the Democratic Convention? Did the Golden Eagles start seeing green?

Not really. For once, it started at the other end of the floor. Something that might as well have been the foreign word of the day for the Irish.

It was defense, a French word that is synonymous with winning. It was a word that was seemingly lost in translation, until Jack Cooley and Jerian Grant translated that into success.

Cooley held Marquette center Chris Otule to four points. Two weeks ago, Otule had a season-high 16 points on 8-for-8 shooting on Senior Night when Cooley sat out much of the game because he was sick.

Thursday night, the Golden Eagles were sick of Cooley. His five fouls reflect more of the big man’s effort than do the six points and six rebounds on his stat line. How Marquette didn’t go after Cooley when he picked up his fourth foul with over seven minutes remaining I still do not know. Maybe he was just too superior, as the alpha male.

Cooley was a force. Emotionally, psychologically and, above all, physically against a team that physically dominated its opponents.

Jack was nimble, Jack was quick, Jack jumped all over Eagles shtick.

And then there was Grant. Grant and his running mate Pat Connaughton led the comeback trail, Lewis and Clark style. Connaughton with his stroke from deep, and Grant with his quick hands and defensive instinct. Grant had three of Notre Dame’s six first-half steals. His maniacal defense led to 11 Marquette turnovers in the first half.

In the second half, the entire team adopted that same defensive mentality. Do five-second out-of-bounds violations even happen anymore? Like a Jerian Grant smile, only when the going’s real good.

And thus the charge was born anew, raised from the ashes faster than the crowd on a Connaughton three.

Grant and Eric Atkins continued to be the emotional leaders of this Irish team. Each played the full game. But each showed something this columnist had never seen before on the court: passionate, unbridled emotion. Letting out a lion’s roar in a giddy springtime green jersey.

Against Marquette two Saturdays ago, the Golden Eagles led by 16 with just over four minutes left. Against Marquette a few hours ago, the Golden Eagles were all tied up with just under four minutes left.

The difference: defense, tenacity, will.

It’s simple addition. Add the three up and you get your fourth-straight appearance in the Big East semifinals.

But to make it to the finals for the first time ever, I think the Irish w
ould like to heat up those leftovers of revenge of Saturdays past.

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agastel1@nd.edu
The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.