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Stepping up

Andrew Soukup | Thursday, February 12, 2004

Faced with the possibility that Torin Francis wouldn’t be healthy enough to play against Connecticut, Irish coach Mike Brey turned to Rick Cornett and told him to be ready.”He shrugged me off,” Brey said Monday night. “He said, ‘Coach, don’t worry about me. I’ll be OK.'”Those were strong words coming from a player who had played just nine minutes in Notre Dame’s previous seven games.But the sophomore proved his coach had little to worry about, and Cornett’s gritty 15-minute stint Monday was a big reason why Notre Dame upset No. 5 Connecticut.”Once I knew Torin wasn’t at full health, I knew someone was going to have to step up,” said Cornett, who finished with six points and seven rebounds while defending preseason national player of the year Emeka Okafor for most of the night.Brey hoped Monday’s win would be a turning point for the player he said improved the most over the summer. And while Cornett came off the bench early in the season when Tom Timmermans was injured, he hadn’t made the impact the Irish coaching staff expected.That changed in a win against DePaul, where Cornett scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds in 16 minutes of action. At that point, Brey believed his sophomore had turned the corner and was ready to assume a regular spot in the Irish rotation.But then a healthy Timmermans returned to the Irish lineup and Cornett was back on the bench. Until the Connecticut game, he didn’t see any significant playing time.Now Brey believes the Connecticut game can be a turning point for the sophomore forward, especially with Francis’ health in doubt.”Fearless,” was how Jordan Cornette described Cornett’s performance Monday.Cornett insisted Okafor did not intimidate him, and his play reflected that. His scrappiness underneath the basket helped the Irish outscore the Huskies 14-11 on second-chance points.”He puts his pants on the same way that I do,” Cornett said. “He’s a great player, but I have to go out there with the mentality that I’m better than him, and I have to try to be better than him.”At one point Monday, Cornett – the least heralded of Notre Dame’s sophomore class – was the only second-year player capable of playing. Francis had left early in the first half with back spasms, and doctors were examining Chris Quinn’s ankle in the locker room.But all four of Notre Dame’s captains were on the floor, and each captain chest-bumped the sophomore every time he made a big play – which was often.”Everyone on this team has their own role,” Cornett said. “I’m just glad I was able to help.”