A much more physical Notre Dame men’s basketball team than in years past picked up its 10th Big East Conference victory Sunday by pounding the boards and getting up in the faces of Cincinnati’s backcourt players for a 62-41 triumph. It marks the fourth consecutive season the 25th-ranked Fighting Irish have posted double-digit wins in league play.
Jerian Grant and the Irish blew by Cincinnati to stay within reach of Big East leaders.
With three conference games remaining, head coach Mike Brey’s squad is alone in fifth place at 22-6 overall and 10-5 in the Big East, having already secured a first-round bye in the league tournament next month in New York City. And a program that has developed quality depth over the last month now appears to have an eight-man rotation where roles are clearly defined.
The blueprint against the Bearcats (19-9, 7-8) was simple: rebound and take away the 3-point shot. Notre Dame, revved up to compete after five days off, allowed Cincinnati to score just 15 points in the first half — a record low for an Irish opponent in Big East play. The Bearcats finished the game 31.5 percent (17-for-54) from the field and just 2-for-12 from behind the arc.
Led by junior guard Jerian Grant’s 13 points, which included a 9-for-9 effort at the foul line, Notre Dame shot 46.8 percent for the game and outrebounded Cincinnati 43-27. Hoping to get out and run, Cincinnati only managed seven points off 11 Irish turnovers and one fast-break bucket.
“I am so pleased with our defensive and rebounding identity that we’ve really done now two games in a row,” Brey said. “I thought we did a great job of staying in front of people who wanted to beat us off the dribble all night. We did a great job of keeping it to one and done, and then you add that to really 40 minutes of very good offensive efficiency and you have a really great team win.”
Senior forward Tom Knight contributed 12 points and seven rebounds on 6-for-7 shooting, senior forward Jack Cooley added 11 points and eight boards, and junior point guard Eric Atkins finished with 11 points and six assists. Sophomore guard Pat Connaughton chipped in six points and three rebounds. Freshman forward Cam Biedscheid and senior center Garrick Sherman combined for nine points in a total of 27 minutes of action. Freshman forward Zach Auguste did not score, but he collected nine rebounds, including five on the defensive end.
“Maybe we’re finding our identity on the defensive end of the floor and rebounding the basketball,” Brey said. “We really talked about that [after the Providence loss]. We watched some film and weren’t very physical on the front line. … When our four big guys are flying around like that, and Connaughton is in there too, even Cam got in there and got three or four rebounds today, we should be able to do that.”
Cincy guard JaQuon Parker (12 points) was the only player to reach double figures for the Bearcats, which have lost three straight.
Knight and Cooley traded silky jumpers, Grant knocked down a pair of free throws and a rugged possession in the paint by Sherman gave Notre Dame a 12-4 lead early in the first half. Two triples by Atkins and Connaughton extended the lead to 22-6 with less than eight minutes to play in the opening frame. Connaughton drained another 3-pointer at the buzzer for a 29-15 advantage.
Cincinnati shot 28 percent (7-for-25) in the first half and was 1-for-6 from the 3-point line. Notre Dame shot 50 percent (12-for-24) from the floor and 3-for-9 from behind the arc. Notre Dame outrebounded the Bearcats 21-11, including Auguste’s eight boards (five defensive). The freshman had 22 defensive rebounds for the year heading into Sunday’s game.
Knight, Cooley and Connaughton registered six points apiece for the Irish in the first half.
Cooley likes the team’s new identity and the timeliness of the epiphany.
“I can’t think of a better time in the season to start clicking like that, especially with the standings in the Big East and how we’re playing,” he said. “It’s great to see. It is really helpful [having big guys off the bench]. It helps my body not just get beat to heck. They can go in and draw some fouls and we can go back in and get the one-and-ones. I’m happy with that.”
Brooks weighs his options
It was confirmed Sunday by a source that Irish senior guard Joey Brooks, who redshirted this season, has been working out with individual Notre Dame football players in an attempt to walk on this spring at tight end. Brooks hopes to earn a scholarship by the end of spring practices, but is open to competing in some fashion as a walk-on. There has been interest in his basketball services from a couple of Big 12 schools, according to the source, including Texas Tech, but it appears Brooks is leaning towards trying to play football for the Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame running backs/slot receivers coach Tony Alford first brought the idea up to Brooks, who played tight end and receiver in high school before narrowing his focus to only basketball at Strake Jesuit College Prep in Texas. He has been catching passes from Notre Dame quarterbacks Everett Golson, Andrew Hendrix and Malik Zaire recently and doing extra solo lifting until the basketball season is over.
Brooks sought advice from close friend and former Irish star TE Kyle Rudolph, who just completed his second year with the Minnesota Vikings, near the end of this past NFL season. Rudolph told Brooks to go for it. Brooks will have to make a decision between Irish football and playing basketball elsewhere after the Blue-Gold game.