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Men’s Basketball: Irish charge past Bulls in victory

Mike Monaco | Monday, January 28, 2013

It looked all too familiar for the No. 24 Irish.

Notre Dame (16-4, 4-3 Big East), losers of three of its last four, trailed 35-28 at halftime of Saturday’s matchup with South Florida. But the Irish were propelled by the unfamiliar and outscored the Bulls (10-9, 1-6) by 15 in the second half en route to a 73-65 bounce-back win in Tampa, Fla. 

Senior forward Tom Knight – who was making his first start of the season with graduate student forward Scott Martin out indefinitely with a knee injury – gave the Irish a jolt with a career-high 17 points and seven rebounds. The Irish, who had lost three of their last four games, went on a 20-3 run early in the second half to get back on track.

“I’m thrilled,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “That’s a great win for us. We’ve been struggling, losing three out of four and Monday night was not real fun in our building with Georgetown thumping us [63-47]. And I’m very proud of our group, because at halftime we could have thought, ‘Maybe not today down here in Tampa.'”

The Bulls scored quickly out of the intermission to stretch their lead to 37-28 before Notre Dame went on its thunderous run, highlighted by a dunk from Knight, to make it 48-40 Notre Dame. 

“I would have been shocked if [Knight] didn’t play well,” Brey said. “He’s been around us for a while, so it’s nice. You lose a sixth-year senior [in Martin] and we put in another senior who’s been in our program, [it] certainly helped us.”

The Bulls cut the Irish lead to 60-55 with 6:10 remaining in the second half, but Notre Dame extended its advantage to 73-61 with another dunk by Knight, this one with 45 seconds left to play.

Junior guard Jerian Grant powered the Notre Dame backcourt with 18 points and eight assists in 39 minutes of action. Fellow junior guard Eric Atkins added 13 points and sophomore guard/forward Pat Connaughton poured in 12 of his own. Brey said getting out in transition was crucial in cracking a strong South Florida defense.

“I think our transition [offense] really got us confident,” Brey said. “We got a bunch of things in transition whether it was at the basket or three-point shots. We were really rebounding and running and I thought our perimeter was fabulous. Grant was great controlling things at the end of a clock. … But our guards made great decisions with the ball in the second half.”

Notre Dame outrebounded the Bulls 34-17 behind the bruising work of Knight, senior forward Jack Cooley and senior center Garrick Sherman. Cooley, who scored just six points, made his presence felt with 14 rebounds.

“That’s where given how we were going to play with Tom Knight in there and given how they’ve been hurt on the backboard, we made a real concerted effort that we have got to get up on the board and win that battle,” Brey said. “And I thought that was really a key.”

South Florida junior forward and leading scorer Victor Rudd was held to just seven points. Freshman forward Zach LeDay led the Bulls with 17 points and sophomore guard Anthony Collins finished with 12 points and eight assists. Collins was held to just two points in the second half.

“He puts so much pressure on you,” Brey said of the South Florida point guard. “We talked about 20 ways of how we were going to deal with him and the ball screen. First half we didn’t do a very good job at all. Second half I thought we did a very good job. 

“But he just keeps putting pressure on you, getting into the lane deeper and deeper. If we didn’t fix that, we would have lost by 15 and we did a better job in the second half.”

Notre Dame fixed its defense on Collins and fixed its overall play in the second half. Brey said playing with a newly-minted starter changed the Irish strategy and getting out in transition fueled the victory.

“We didn’t play since Monday and we were kind of reinventing our self with more three [perimeter players] around two [post players],” Brey said. “When Scott plays we stretch you a little more, four around one. But I thought we pounded away. We got on the offensive board with Jack and Tom and Sherman, rotating them.

“We were able to run because they’re a very good defensive team. You can’t play against their set ‘D’ for 40 minutes. It’s hard on you. The easy buckets made us believe maybe we could get one here today.”

The Irish return to Purcell Pavilion on Wednesday to take on sizzling Villanova, who is coming off wins against a pair of top-five teams in Louisville and Syracuse.

Contact Mike Monaco at  [email protected]