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Men’s Basketball: Cool Comeback

Andrew Owens | Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Sparked by a 17-point second-half performance from junior forward Jack Cooley, the Irish pulled away in the second half to win their seventh consecutive game, 71-53 over Rutgers.

Cooley scored 22 points and snatched 18 rebounds — a career-high — for No. 23 Notre Dame (18-8, 10-3 Big East).

Until sophomore guard Eric Atkins made a layup and was fouled with 11:57 to play in the second half, Cooley had made every Irish 2-point field goal with the exception of one.

“We like throwing it in to him,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “Their speed bothered him at first. They got underneath him.

“But he does a good job of playing off of Eric and [sophomore guard Jerian Grant’s] drives, and we certainly want to go to him. He’s the go-to guy when he gets offensive rebounds. He gets us extra possessions.”

Brey said he was worried Cooley might be less motivated as his performance improves, but that has not been the case.

“I think at times when he was a younger player he could take a day off and maybe not be as engaged, but I wasn’t as engaged in him because he was the seventh guy,” Brey said.

“Now that he’s a main guy, he’s more of the focal point, but I’ve been very pleased to see when Jack has had success, he wants to have more.”

Cooley, the reigning Big East Player of the Week who accounted for 18 of the team’s 37 rebounds, said the play of the Irish guards has enabled him to produce offensively.

“The whole program has helped me to become what I am right now,” he said. “Everyone’s getting me the ball well, the coaches helped me get my cardio back up, and everyone’s giving me confidence. Confidence is key for any basketball player, and everyone’s filling me with so much confidence it’s hard to not play well.”

The Irish struggled out of the gate offensively in the first half, but kept Rutgers (12-14, 4-9) in check with a strong defensive showing that led to eight Scarlet Knight turnovers in the first half.

Notre Dame’s defensive pressure was a stark contrast from the Jan. 16 matchup in Piscataway, N.J., a 65-58 Rutgers victory, Brey said.

“I thought our defense was fabulous, and that was the key,” he said. “We could not guard them a month ago and I thought we were very efficient offensively.”

Brey said one of the qualities of the team that makes him most proud is its continued hunger to keep winning.

“One of the things [the coaches] … reinforced with this group: Since the Syracuse win, they’ve never really kind of rested on their laurels or been distracted,” he said. “This is the first game they’ve played as a ranked team … They continually … want to get better and want the next challenge, and that’s a great sign of maturity.

The Irish return to action Saturday when they travel to Villanova for a 9 p.m. tip-off.

Contact Andrew Owens at [email protected]