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November 20, 2012

Irish tap into veteran resolve

For Notre Dame's starting five of Jack Cooley, Scott Martin, Eric Atkins, Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, this felt like familiar territory.

The Irish had traveled to Kansas City to take part in the Progressive CBE Classic a year earlier, and after getting blown out by a lightning-quick Missouri team, Notre Dame came back the following night and lost by three to Georgia.

One year later, in the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic in Brooklyn, the Irish lost a heartbreaker Friday night to St. Joseph's, blowing an eight-point lead with less than four minutes remaining and losing by nine in overtime.

Less than 24 hours later, the Irish trailed Brigham Young, 49-42, with about 14 minutes remaining. It looked like it might be time to pack up the gear and head home again with their tails between their legs.

Instead, the Irish (3-1) went on a 16-2 run as Jerian Grant scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half, Eric Atkins hit a pair of three-pointers, and Notre Dame converted 10-of-12 free-throw attempts to claim a much-needed 78-68 victory over the Cougars.

"(Friday was) disappointing because we got off to such a great start against St. Joe," said Irish head coach Mike Brey. "We were ready to play. We were in a position to win the game and couldn't close it out.

"(Saturday), I was worried physically and mentally, after getting out of that building at 1:30, 2 a.m., about what we had left."

What the Irish had was a resolve to avoid another early-season tournament sweep.

"Those five guys have played a lot together and they've gotten through some tough stuff together," Brey said. "I give them credit for getting out of there 1-1 and beating a team that's probably going to win 20-some games out West."

The players took on a "refuse to lose" mentality at crunch time against BYU.

"We definitely wanted to come out of there with a win," Atkins said. "Last year, in the early season tournament in Kansas City where we didn't come out with any wins, that definitely hurt us. We thought about how bad that experience felt.

"When we were down seven, I remember thinking, 'We have to come out with a win somehow, someway,' and we fought back and won."

"We just stayed together, didn't quit, didn't give up, which speaks to the team's character, especially after the night before," Martin said. "We finally hit some shots down the stretch.

"You learn from every game. We won't dwell on it. It's November. Obviously there's importance to it, and there are things to learn. But you can't overreact and get too caught up in one game."

Cooley, who finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds against the Cougars, thought back to a couple of hard-fought road victories last season.

"It just came back to the experiences we had last year," Cooley said. "Actually, it was far worse at Louisville. I think there was like two minutes to go and we were down seven. And against Villanova…We've had all these experiences where we've been down. We drew from that."

Connaughton, who had yet to enter the starting lineup last year in Kansas City, is no longer in the panic mode that might have overtaken him at times on the road.

"It's just the will to win," Connaughton said. "We knew we let one slide on Friday night and we didn't want that feeling back. To be honest with you, I think the loss Friday night really stirred something up in (us). We hadn't experienced losing yet and we hadn't experienced losing a tough one.

"For all that to happen at once, and then to be down seven with 14 minutes left, it was like, 'All right, we still have 14 minutes of ball left. Let's see what we can do with it.'"

The Irish proved to themselves that they have what it takes to overcome adversity at crunch time.

"There's no reason to panic," Cooley said. "Just relax. Coach Brey has us in game situations in practice every day. We know how to handle it. What we do is going to work. We just stuck to our guns and came back."

Note: Notre Dame returns to the hardwood Wednesday night when they host George Washington, a member of the Atlantic 10. George Washington is Brey's alma mater.


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