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Men’s Basketball: Thrown down

Eric Prister | Sunday, February 5, 2012

For Irish coach Mike Brey, it was a season-changing win.

Over the course of Notre Dame’s 76-59 blowout win over No. 15 Marquette, Brey said he saw his young and inexperienced team transition from boys to men.

“I continue to be very, very proud of the team I work with,” he said. “I thought today we took another step and played like men. And we’re very cruel competitors when we have a chance to put it away, so I’m thrilled to see that from this group.

“Seeing that today, that was a cruel way of getting it done today. We’ve been winning games, but that was a different and another step forward as far as our mentality, our maturity, and I’m going to refer to them on Monday when I see them again.”

The Irish were led by the youngest and most inexperienced among them, namely freshman guard Pat Connaughton, who scored 23 points on 9-12 shooting and added a career-high 11 rebounds. But Brey said Connaughton, who is also a pitcher for the Irish baseball team, has been a man from the day he started at Notre Dame.

“He was grown up when he got here,” Brey said. “Watching him that July and [he] got in a little late, there was a fearlessness and a belief that he was really ready. Anybody who stands on that mound and has the game on his shoulders, there’s a psyche there that maybe other freshman don’t have. He’s had the game on his backside many, many times. So lining up a [3-pointer] to put you up six or converting key free throws, I think that really converts over. People are still surprised how athletic he is. He rebounded, he blocked some shots, so he was really flying all over the place.”

Connaughton was one of four Irish players who finished in double-figures against Marquette. Sophomore guard Eric Atkins scored 18 and added five assists, while fellow sophomore guard Jerian Grant led the team with eight assists and chipped in 12 points.

“They might [underestimate us], because you look at us across the board and we don’t have one kid that everyone’s afraid of,” Connaughton said. “We have an entire team that people are starting to be afraid of. And that’s a dangerous thing, because when you have a team, especially one that’s this young, that’s coming together this much at this point at the season; we’re hitting our stride.”

The real key for Notre Dame, Brey said, was passing, which allowed the Irish to score 16 points more than their conference average heading into the game against Marquette. Of Notre Dame’s 28 made baskets, 22 were assisted.

“I just don’t think anybody passes it any better than us in the country,” he said. “I think that’s one of our greatest strengths, and when you have guys delivering open shots a little more than we have in the past on a day like this, it’s beautiful to watch.”

Marquette hung around throughout the first half, thanks in large part to Notre Dame’s poor shooting from beyond the arc. The Irish shot just 3-10 from distance before the break and went into halftime with a four-point lead.

Notre Dame extended the lead slowly throughout the second half, but turned the tide strongly in their favor when senior guard Scott Martin buried a jumper as the shot clock expired to give the Irish a nine-point lead with just over eight minutes to play. That started a 16-3 run which included 3-pointers from Martin, Grant, Connaughton and Atkins, putting the game out of reach.

“We did hit a couple amazing ones,” Atkins said. “Scott [Martin] hitting that last-second one. That was when I thought we were going to win this game.”

The Irish shot a sizzling 57.7 percent from the floor in the second half, including 8-13 from beyond the arc in the second half.

“I hope we’re starting to get in that territory with shooting,” Brey said. “I think we’re a better shooting team than the numbers have said, and maybe this could jump-start us shooting it from behind the arc.”

The win over Marquette moves the Irish to 7-3 in the Big East, placing them in fourth in the conference, only a half game behind second-place Georgetown.

“We’re still changing,” Brey said. “Last year’s team was last year’s team on December 20. They were really good, but they weren’t changing. We’re still changing, we’re still learning about our group.

“Why not us? We have one heck of a strong resumé. Our resumé is very strong with what we’ve done. It’s exciting to think about that that’s possible with this team after where we were. But I think our guys are very focused on showing up on Selection Sunday. And God bless them, they should be, because they’ve put us in this position with their focus and business-like approach to go get it.”



Contact Eric Prister at [email protected]