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Gastelum: Irish got away with one, need focus (March 13)

Andrew Gastelum | Thursday, March 14, 2013

NEW YORK – Mike Brey finally remembered to pack his “Easy Button.”

The Irish were shooting 41 percent, including 4-for-7 from beyond the arc in the first half, compared to Rutgers’ 29 percent and 1-for-8 mark.

Irish senior forward Tom Knight, the same Tom Knight that averages 4.8 points per game, took 10 shots and led all scores with 10 points at the end of the half.

Rutgers junior forward Wally Judge had two more fouls (two) than he did points, one night after dropping 20 without blinking against DePaul.

Notre Dame led by 14 at the half, 33-19.

The Irish led by that much at halftime only three times the entire season: at home against Cincinnati, Brown and Chicago State.
And here they were, in the Big East tournament, up by 14.

They looked comfortable for once. They came out firing. They breezed by.

At the same place where they have always struggled. At the same place where the shape of the arena was used as an excuse for poor shooting. At the same place where the lights were always too bright.

Even the fans thought so. At halftime, Madison Square Garden was almost as empty as the Purcell Pavilion during College GameDay, or Purcell Pavilion on any gameday if it’s not against a top-25 team.

Notre Dame’s two leading scorers, Jerian Grant and Jack Cooley, combined for two points at the half. But that was okay; the Irish had cruised to the easy win.

But Brey forgot to pack his AA batteries or mention that a game was split into two halves. His team needed more juice, and he was far from thrilled in the second half.

The Irish forgot to start the second half. Rutgers went on a 9-0 run and cut the lead in half in just two minutes.

Maybe they were thinking about how they were going to hit up American Eagle to find something to match their new jerseys. Or maybe they were wondering about how to stop Chris Otule. Or they just got caught lifting the Big East trophy in la-la-land.
In the second half, Brey had the best defensive stance on the floor. The Scarlet Knights disguised themselves as Louisville and scored at will without much of a fight.

Rutgers senior forward Austin Johnson looked like he was playi
ng “NBA Jam” with a cheat code against Garrick Sherman, putting up a career-high 18 points (15 in the second half alone).

Cooley has disappeared recently against any team not named DePaul, and that has to be most concerning for Brey. Two points and four fouls tonight, and the big man who was named an all-Big East first teamer on Monday hasn’t scored more than 13 points in exactly a month. Yes he is not a go-to scorer, but he appears less aggressive around his paint.

The biggest surprise of the night came from sophomore forward Pat Connaughton (21 points, six 3-pointers). He was Notre Dame’s defibrillator, shocking them back to life with an electric three-ball. Not even his closest friends would have bet beforehand that he would led the game in scoring, on Opposite Day.

But what happens now? An effort like that in most of the second half probably leads to a blowout against any of the teams remaining – all eight have at least 20 wins. Especially against a Marquette team that more than just thumped the Irish less than two weeks ago. And if the Irish survive that, there’s Louisville.

Brey preached relentless focus on Sunday. The Irish showed that for one half. And they’ll need to show it for the next four to relieve themselves from being the longest-tenured team in the Big East without making it to a Saturday at the Garden.

There was a flash of good. Of a Notre Dame team that was different than any other at the Garden. But it escaped, just as the Irish did with a win.

Brey looked confident, yet relieved, afterward. He had to.

“We expected to hang out a while,” he said. “We love New York City. I’ll take that over South Bend right now.”

His team better listen closely, I hear snow is in the forecast for South Bend late Thursday night.

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