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Men’s Basketball: Connaughton, Knight lead Irish over Rutgers in Big East tournament

Mike Monaco | Wednesday, March 13, 2013

NEW YORK – It was anyone but the usual suspects for No. 24 Notre Dame.

Sophomore forward Pat Connaughton buried six 3-pointers as part of a season-high 21 points and senior forward Tom Knight poured in 18 points, including six of the team’s first nine, to lead the Irish (24-8) to a 69-61 win over resilient Rutgers in the Big East tournament on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.

“Any postseason win is a great win and I loved how we got off to a good start,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “I thought that was important, especially offensively we were flowing pretty good. Both of these guys, [Connaughton and Knight], gave us a great punch on the offensive end.”

Knight, who scored six points total in two Big East tournament tilts last year, powered the No. 6 seed Irish with 10 first-half points to lead all scorers. Connaughton seemingly stopped every Rutgers run with a 3-pointer in the second half to lift Notre Dame over the No. 11 seed Scarlet Knights (15-16) and into Thursday’s quarterfinal matchup against No. 3 seed Marquette.

In total, Connaughton shot 7-for-10 from the field, including 6-for-8 from long distance.

“I think he’s got a great stroke and we needed him to be aggressive,” Brey said of Connaughton. “The one thing about Pat that’s been a trait of his is, when the lights are the brightest and the stakes are really high, he’s really, really good. He’s such a gamer.

“I think this kind of catapults him a little bit. I told him if he turns down a shot, I’m going to get a technical because I’m going to tackle him during the game.”

Leading 33-19 after a dominant half, Notre Dame had to fend off a 9-0 spurt from Rutgers to begin a second stanza that was trying for the Irish. Rutgers sliced the lead to 33-28 roughly three minutes into the frame. Irish junior guard Jerian Grant finally halted the run when he drained a deep three. Two more threes from Connaughton stretched the Notre Dame lead back to 47-36 with 11:42 remaining in the second half.

The Scarlet Knights battled back and cut the lead to as few as five, 54-49, with 5:42 remaining in the second half. But the Irish kept hitting streak-stopping threes.

As a team, Notre Dame shot 10 of 17 from beyond the arc.

Rutgers senior forward/center Austin Johnson propelled the Scarlet Knights with 18 points and six rebounds and sophomore guard Myles Mack added 18 points.

The Irish led by 14 at the intermission after 20 minutes of efficient basketball. Notre Dame shot 41 percent from the field and had assists on eight of its 12 field goals. Rutgers, meanwhile, shot just 8-for-27 from the field. Notre Dame also manhandled the Scarlet Knights on the glass, outrebounding the Scarlet Knights 23-15.

Knight powered the Irish with 10 points in the first stanza to go along with four rebounds.

“I came out to the game wanting to supply energy to the team, anything that the team needed,” Knight said. “If that was rebounds or scoring, that’s what I was going to try to do. And today it was scoring.”

The Irish broke out with a proficient start and led 7-3 at the first media timeout. Knight scored the first four points and Connaughton drilled a 3-pointer. The Scarlet Knights shot just 1-for-5 from the field in the first four minutes.

Irish junior guard Eric Atkins picked up his second foul at the 13:39 mark of the first half and Connaughton subbed in for the point guard. The Irish immediately went on a quick 5-0 run, capped off by a smooth three-ball from Connaughton on the wing to make it 15-7 with 11:58 left in the half.

Notre Dame extended its first-half lead to 31-15 – the largest lead of the half for the Irish – with 2:48 remaining before intermission, highlighted by Grant grooving an outlet pass to a fast-breaking Atkins at the other end for an easy lay-in.

Senior forward Jack Cooley finished with two points and nine rebounds on 1-for-6 shooting and Grant added 11 points, four rebounds and five assists.

Notre Dame will face off with the Golden Eagles on Thursday in the quarterfinals. Marquette defeated the Irish 72-64 on March 2.

“They thumped us early,” Brey said. “We did not get off to a very good start and it came down to defending their bigs. Their bigs beat us up. And I just talked to our guys in there, challenging our four big guys. We have to do a better job establishing our post presence defensively and offensively against Marquette.”

The Irish tip off against the Golden Eagles on Thursday at 9 p.m. at Madison Square Garden.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu