Notre Dame has hopes of playing on Saturday night for the first time at the Big East Championship in New York — the final edition of the always-entertaining tournament with arguably unmatched richness. The sixth-seeded Fighting Irish at least guaranteed seeing the Madison Square Garden court one more night after holding off No. 11 seed Rutgers Wednesday, 69-61, in the second round.
Pat Connaughton drained six 3-pointers in Notre Dame's win over Rutgers in the second round of the Big East Championship Wednesday.
The Irish (24-8) take on No. 3 seed Marquette Thursday in the quarterfinals at 9 p.m.
Head coach Mike Brey’s team, which earned a first-round bye, finished the regular season on a low note with a 16-point loss at Louisville March 9. But a clean first half that featured a 10-point outburst by senior forward Tom Knight — combined with the Scarlet Knight’s frigid 8-of-27 effort from the field in the first half — helped the Irish take a 33-19 lead into intermission. Notre Dame led by as many as 16 points.
Sophomore Pat Connaughton hit both his 3-point attempts in the opening frame and junior point guard Eric Atkins came up with six points to make up for a lack of production from senior forward Jack Cooley (two points) and junior guard Jerian Grant (scoreless) through the first 20 minutes.
Rutgers turned up the heat with a 7-0 run to start the second half, and Notre Dame relied on Connaughton’s rhythm from behind the arc and Knight’s rugged play to escape instead of running away with what was on track to be a blowout win. Connaughton stroked 6 of 8 treys for a game-high and season-high 21 points, and Knight finished with career highs in points (18) and rebounds (nine).
Notre Dame needed every single point from that duo after Cooley, Atkins and Grant combined for 20 points — Grant showing some life late in the game with 11. Both Atkins and Grant picked up second fouls midway through the first frame, with Grant adding a third on a very questionable charge call with under two minutes to play.
After going 9-of-9 from the field for 20 points against DePaul Tuesday night in the opening round, Rutgers’ Wally Judge made just 1 of 6 field-goal attempts for two points vs. the Irish. The Scarlet Knights relied on senior forward Austin Johnson’s career-best 18 points, who matched point guard Myles Mack’s point production.
The Fighting Irish shot 41.5 percent (22-of-53) for the game, 58.8 percent (10-of-17) from downtown and outscored Rutgers 15-5 at the foul line. No Notre Dame player missed more than one free throw.
Rutgers (15-16) shot 41.9 percent (26-of-62) from the floor and 4-of-15 (26.7 percent) from behind the arc. Head coach Mike Rice’s ratcheted up its defensive pressure in the second half, cutting the deficit to 41-36 with 13:09 to play.
A timely triple by Connaughton took some steam out of the Scarlet Knights, who still managed to battle back from an 11-point deficit and make it a six-point contest with 9:27 remaining. It was Connaughton again that slammed the door with another 3-pointer. Judge connected on his only field goal of the night to pull Rutgers within five points again at the 6:41 mark before Connaughton converted a layup and another shot from behind the arc for a 10-point Irish advantage.
Knight went 4-of-4 from the stripe in the final three minutes and Grant added a 3-pointer and a dunk to help the Irish ice the final game of the night at MSG.
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