Irish Finish Regular Season Right

Notre Dame junior forward Jack Cooley resumed eating raw meat Friday in the Big East Conference regular season finale against visiting Providence. By the time the voracious big man, who spent the last four days blaming himself for a clunker against Georgetown, walked off the Purcell Pavilion court for the final time this year, he had registered a game-high 27 points and 17 rebounds in a 75-69 victory over the Friars.

Jack Cooley scored a career-high 27 points and pulled down 17 rebounds Friday

A 25-point lead in the second half evaporated as Providence began to heat up from behind the arc against Irish reserves. Head coach Mike Brey decided to pull fifth-year senior Scott Martin from the game with 2:27 remaining and a 68-53 lead in order for the co-captain to get a proper ovation. Martin was soon called back into action after the Friars (15-16, 4-14 Big East) went on a 10-1 run to make things interesting with a minute to play.

After joking about getting a curtain call, Martin said the late letdown should be used as a teaching tool for the No. 20/19 Irish (21-10, 13-5 Big East), which secured a double-bye in next week’s Big East Championship in New York City.

“I think we probably made some substitutions we normally wouldn’t make because it’s Senior Night and that sort of thing,” he said. “I think we had great momentum going through the second half, and we were still able to stop their run when we had to. It’s good, too, for us to get a game situation in before the end of the season and heading into tournament time. Now it’s one-and-done. You’re playing for your life pretty much. It’s good to get that experience under our belt and have it fresh in our mind for the tournament.”

Syracuse (16-1) locked up the regular season crown with a game remaining. Marquette (13-4) squares off against Georgetown (12-5) Saturday. The top-four teams earn double-byes.

Notre Dame held a 31-28 advantage at halftime on the shoulders of Cooley, who poured in 21 points and grabbed 10 boards through the first 20 minutes. The rest of the Irish, to Brey’s dismay, were happy to stand around and watch. Martin was next in line with five points as the team shot 37.9 percent from the field — with Cooley scoring seven of the team’s 11 first-half field goals.

“It’s good to have that game, especially after the last one,” Cooley said. “I don’t know what was going on [against Georgetown]. It was good to get out there and just get to play again. Everything coach does he means in a positive way. I really took it upon myself as a disappointment the way I played. I can’t afford to let myself do that. I can’t have a game where I have two points and zero rebounds. The whole week I felt like I let my team down. I just kept thinking I could never do that again and that I won’t do that ever again. I made sure I came out here and made a statement. I wanted to prove something tonight.”

After going 1-for-4 from 3-point land in the first half, Notre Dame knocked down 4 of 6 triples in the second half. They outscored Providence 18-9 from the foul line and had a 40-35 rebounding average. Brey’s squad finished the game shooting 47.3 percent (26-for-55).

Cooley, Martin and sophomore point guard Eric Atkins attacked Providence forward Kadeem Batts from the opening tip. Batts finished with just one bucket and two boards before fouling out with 14:37 to play. Guards Gerard Coleman and Vincent Council each scored 17 points for the Friars, which shot 39.4 percent (28-for-71) for the game.

Atkins (nine assists) and Jerian Grant each had 10 points, Martin finished with 11 and sixth man Alex Dragicevich pitched in 12 points and five rebounds. Freshman starter Pat Connaughton's offensive struggles continued Friday and he registered only one bucket. Brey said in the days before the Irish take the court Thursday he'll consider switching Connaughton for Dragicevich in the starting rotation.

It’s the second straight year the Irish secured a double-bye in the league tournament. The 2010-11 team made it to the semifinals before dropping an 83-77 overtime game to Louisville. Notre Dame has never made it to the finals on Saturday night in NYC.

“I immediately started talking about ... I made some comparisons with last year’s team, because they’re competitive with that group before them,” Brey said. "[This year’s group] won nine games in a row and last year’s group only won eight. I said last year’s group only got to Friday; we couldn’t get to Saturday. I really want that for our program. I feel like that’s another building block for us in this league. Now it’s going to be hard to do, but when you get the double-bye, I think you’re going to be in better position to do it. We’ve been to the semis. We’d love to get over that hump and get to Saturday night.”

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