Outside the locker room walls there were misgivings that the Notre Dame men’s basketball team could really win its ninth game in a row; that it could somehow keep such tremendous momentum rolling against a West Virginia team with its NCAA Tournament hopes on the line and seeking revenge from a four-point loss on its home turf just a couple weeks ago.
Jerian Grant led Notre Dame's romp over WVU with 20 points and two electric dunks
Doubting the No. 20/18 Fighting Irish, however, has become a silly and pointless endeavor. They are, for anyone still on the fence, the real deal. Efficiently and thoroughly, Notre Dame set a program record for consecutive Big East Conference victories Wednesday night in South Bend with a 71-44 win over the Mountaineers.
Notre Dame, which improved to 20-8 overall and 12-3 in league play, played angry after first-half calls didn’t go its way. It played with that cruelty head coach Mike Brey, who earned a rare technical a few minutes in, has been talking about for the last month. Sophomore guard Jerian Grant, who had a game-high 20 points, was the meanest of the bunch.
With a 30-28 advantage at the break, Grant took over, finishing 8-for-11 shooting from the field and 4-for-5 from 3-point land. He added two highlight-reel dunks for good measure.
“He almost tonight was starting to figure out how good he is,” Brey said. “He’s an exceptional talent who’s growing up still. I’m thrilled with his improvement and his development and really his overall confidence. He was going for the jugular tonight. He has that in him. We have a couple guys like that out there and that’s really paid off for us.”
The Irish, which reached 20 victories for the sixth straight year to tie a program record, shot 61.4 percent (27-for-44) for the game and 56.3 percent (9-for-16) from behind the arc. Fifth-year senior Scott Martin, looking more self-assured than perhaps at any other point this season, drained 3 of 4 triples in route to 15 points. Junior forward Jack Cooley and sophomore point guard Eric Atkins each added 13 points.
Martin held forward Kevin Jones, who entered the game averaging 19.6 points and 11.1 rebounds per league game — tops in the Big East in both categories — to 15 points and eight rebounds. A force in the first half, forward Deniz Kilicli and his skyhook was shut down in the final 20 minutes. He finished with eight points and five boards. Darryl Bryant was the only other WVU (17-11, 7-8) player to reach double figures, notching 10 points and four assists.
“[Martin] was very fired up for the Kevin Jones matchup twice,” Brey said. “He loves these challenges. He certainly defends them and also his offense is pretty good on those nights. I am really proud of him, because he has just embraced all these challenges. He was leading when he wasn’t shooting well. That’s a man to do that. It’s so steady; it’s so there every day. He is who he is every day. Even when I took him out with three minutes to go — I don’t take him out much — I was like, ‘I’m a little nervous. I don’t like having him not on the floor.’ I said, ‘I’m going to give you tomorrow off.’ He laughed and said, ‘Thanks, coach.’”
Notre Dame opened the second half with a 20-4 run that included a three-point play by Atkins, a tomahawk jam and two 3-pointers by Grant and a pair of triples from Martin. By the time WVU coach Bob Huggins knew what hit him, he was the one fuming on the sideline.
The brief tirade by Brey, whether contrived or a natural reaction, at the 10:58 mark in the first half and down 15-11 did the trick, and the 12th-year boss had a much more enjoyable final 31 minutes.
“It was a little bit of both,” Brey admitted. “I don’t get many ... I’ve had four or five in 12 years. I thought it was a physical game and maybe not the greatest calls in a physical game. I was out of the box, and I deserved it and I was close to getting thrown out. He kind of turned his back after I said something after he T’d me the first time like a veteran official. Did it get our guys going a little bit? Maybe. It got our building going a little, I think. Maybe it was helpful from that standpoint.
“We were in a little bit of a funk, too. I thought the only guy that really started the game digging was Eric Atkins. Thankfully the other guys worked themselves into it.”
Brey, who said he’s the loosest coach in America, did rattle his team’s cage during an uninspired stretch early. The Irish responded.
“Coach Brey kind of felt like we were playing sluggish,” Grant said. “For him to do that kind of woke us up. We can all handle that now.”
The Mountaineers finished just 1-for-11 from 3-point land and shot 31.5 percent (17-for-54) from the field. Notre Dame tightened up on the boards and ended the night with a 29-28 rebounding advantage.
The Irish head to St. John’s Saturday and turn around and play at Georgetown Sunday before wrapping up regular season play March 2 versus Providence in South Bend.
“Yeah, it’s very special,” Brey said of this team in particular, one most didn’t expect much from in early January, that set a school record in consecutive conference wins. “They really wanted that record. But it’s really special for this group to do it. It will be a great story in the history of our basketball program. They come back to reunions; it will be something they reminisce about. We certainly want to see if we can keep riding it past nine.”