Tom Knight nailed his interview Saturday in Tampa. In place of injured Scott Martin, Knight started for the first time this year and turned in the best performance of his career when Notre Dame needed it most in a 73-65 victory over South Florida. The Fighting Irish improved to 16-4 overall and 4-3 in the Big East.
Senior forward Tom Knight "delivered" Saturday against South Florida in his first start of the season.
In just his fourth career start, Knight poured in 17 points via soft touches and demonstrative dunks on 8-for-10 shooting. The 6-foot-10 forward from Dixfield, Maine, added seven rebound and two blocks in 32 minutes of action.
“Thrilled with what Tom Knight did today,” head coach Mike Brey told UND.com afte the win. “But as I told the team, we’re not surprised. Tom Knight has been delivering for us. He’s a senior in our program. I think this is something for us to build on.”
The Irish had lost three of their last four games prior to their trip to Florida, and with Martin out indefinitely with knee problems, Brey had to quickly figure out a new look. He went with Knight and a bigger lineup over freshman forward Cam Biedscheid, who has struggled mightily from the field in recent weeks.
In limited minutes, Knight had scored 14 points combined over the last three contests, but provided the most consistency of Notre Dame’s bench big men.
“Tom has always had a great frame of mind, a great attitude, even when he would have [a legitimate reason for a] complaint about playing more, quite frankly,” Brey added. “I think he could have complained more early in the season. But he has such a great frame of mind, and his teammates really trust him.
“Those four other starters, when I asked them the other day who do we start, they said get Tom in there. He delivered for us.”
Notre Dame overcame a nine-point deficit (37-28) early in the second half, one that grew as senior forward Jack Cooley sat a significant portion of the first frame with two fouls, by putting together an 18-7 run. After shooting under 12 percent from 3-point land in a blowout loss to Georgetown Monday, the Irish chucked it confidently en route to a 50-42 lead with 12 minutes to play.
The Irish shot 54 percent from the field (27-for-50) and 47.4 percent from behind the arc (9-for-19). Junior guard Jerian Grant led the team with a game-high 18 points and added eight assists and three rebounds for one of his most complete efforts of his two-year career. Classmate Eric Atkins dished out four assists and chipped in 13 points. Both knocked down three triples. Sophomore guard Pat Connaughton registered 12 points and three rebounds with a pair of 3-pointers.
The Bulls (10-9, 1-6) shot 60.9 percent (14-for-23) in the first half, including a 5-for-11 effort from deep in the opening 20 minutes. South Florida was one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the league heading into the game. Notre Dame’s zone defense tightened up in the second half, holding the Bulls to 38.5 percent (10-for-26) from the field and 1-for-10 from behind the arc.
“We needed a win,” Brey said. “We’ve been struggling a little bit and we tried to reinvent ourselves the last couple days. I think the key was our defense in the second half. We really did a good job defensively, and we were able to get stops and get out and run. When we start running like that, it gets us confident.”
So must Saturday’s Big East shakeup, which included the top two teams going down. Villanova slapped No. 3 Syracuse in a 75-71 overtime win at home, and host Georgetown took down No. 5 Louisville, 53-51. The Orange fell to 6-1 and the Cardinals slipped to 4-3 in conference play.
With games still to be played Saturday, seven teams were tied for third place in the conference with 4-3 records, including Notre Dame, which hosts Villanova (13-7, 4-3) Wednesday at Purcell Pavilion. The Wildcats have been the league’s biggest surprise so far this season after beating Syracuse and Louisville in consecutive outings.
Brey said he plans to go with the Grant, Atkins, Cooley, Connaughton and Knight lineup against Villanova and probably beyond.
“We’re a little bigger,” Brey said. “We’re a little more three around two. I think we get more off-ball screens, and we pound away a little bit more and I thought we did that tonight. We were able to rebound and run as well. We’ve got [Garrick Sherman] coming off the bench; we’ve got Cam [Biedscheid] coming off the bench. We looked at Austin [Burgett] a little bit tonight. Zach [Auguste] could be in there on Wednesday. I think this is a revolving door right now.”
Reserve forward Zach LeDay led South Florida with 17 points and guard Anthony Collins added 12. The Irish outscored the Bulls 6-2 in points on the break and 13-12 off turnovers in a game with eight lead changes. Notre Dame dominated the boards 34-17 (14 rebounds by Cooley) and shot 90.9 percent from the foul line (10-for-11).