Legendary comedian Dudley Moore used to perform a Beethoven piece on the piano that never ended. Every time he pounded what appeared to be the final, demonstrative notes, Moore would add a few more. It could be the soundtrack of the Notre Dame men’s basketball season.
Junior Jack Cooley dominated Wednesday with 22 points and 18 rebounds.
The 23rd-ranked Fighting Irish just won’t quit and picked up their seventh consecutive victory Wednesday night with a 71-53 decision over visiting Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights handed head coach Mike Brey’s squad its last loss on Jan. 16, but Notre Dame had all the answers the second time around against a quick, guard-oriented Rutgers team.
Junior forward Jack Cooley, the reigning Big East Conference Player of the Week, powered in 22 points (17 in the second half) and grabbed 18 rebounds to dominate the contest. Defensively, the Irish (18-8, 10-3) were stellar once again, limiting Rutgers (12-14, 4-9 Big East) to 39.3-percent shooting for the game and 21.4 percent (3-for-14) from 3-point land.
“I really challenged our group to do a better job defending them this time than in New Jersey, and I’m really pleased with the end result,” Brey said. “I thought our defense was fabulous and that was the key. We could not guard them a month ago.
“So many dribble exchanges and ball screens with small guards that are really quick, and for the most part we really stayed in front. I thought Jack Cooley was fabulous hedging on ball screens in the second half and Scott Martin anchoring us. Jerian [Grant] and Eric [Atkins] did a great job keeping fast guys in front of them.”
Atkins was flawless guiding the ship. The sophomore point guard registered eight assists without a turnover to go with his 10 points. Grant added 11 points, freshman Pat Connaughton contributed 10 points and five defensive rebounds, and sophomore sixth man Alex Dragicevich pitched in with eight points.
As has been the theme this season, Notre Dame got off to a slow start offensively in the first half, shooting just 29.6 percent from the field en route to a 33-28 halftime advantage. In a game where the officials allowed plenty of contact, Cooley struggled to get in a rhythm. Despite only scoring five points through the first 20 minutes, Cooley secured nine rebounds and helped shut down Rutgers’ forward tandem of Kadeem jack and Gilvydas Biruata — who combined for just two first-half points.
The Scarlet Knights, down 14-3 early in the game, went on an 8-0 run to get back in it. A few minutes later, Connaughton converted a four-point play and added two more 3-pointers to help Notre Dame hold on to a small cushion at the break. Cooley took over the rest of the way.
“I was kind of frustrated with myself at halftime,” Cooley said. “I just really wasn’t finishing. I took it upon myself to start making more shots. I was letting myself get pushed around a little more in the first half. In the second half there was another play [like Saturday against DePaul] where I got shoved to the floor again. [Opponents] just aren’t learning from that; you really shouldn’t push me to the floor. It doesn’t work out [for them] in the end.”
Notre Dame seemingly lived in the bonus and double-bonus, outscoring Rutgers 24-6 at the foul line.
“I thought we were very efficient offensively,” Brey said. “It was a game where we were going to get to the line; they’re very physical. The foul line was a great weapon for us. Certainly Jack in the middle was a beast. We got to the bonus quick and we feel it’s a great weapon for us.”
The seven straight Big East wins ties the second-longest streak in program history. Notre Dame had a seven-game spree last season and an eight-game streak in 2000-01.
With five games remaining, including Saturday’s trip to Villanova, the Irish are chasing a double-bye, which go to the top-four teams, in the league tournament next month.
“We’ve talked about just staying right there, staying hungry and keep fighting,” Martin said. “The next game is the most important game; Villanova is the most important game on the schedule. It’s a late game (9 p.m.), which is good for me. I’m a night guy.”
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