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November 30, 2012

Frontline challenge pays off

Frontline challenge: Notre Dame lost to St. Joseph’s on Nov. 16 - the only setback so far this season - due largely to the production of the Hawks’ frontline. C.J. Aiken, Ronald Roberts and Halil Kanacevic combined for 47 points and 31 rebounds in the 79-70 overtime victory against the Irish.

Mike Brey did not want a repeat performance against No. 8 Kentucky’s mammoth frontcourt Thursday night.

“I challenged us two days ago,” said Brey following Notre Dame’s 64-50 victory over the Wildcats. “I said, ‘I know you want a do-over after the St. Joe’s thing.’ The three of them all shook their head yes.”

Jack Cooley, Scott Martin and Garrick Sherman responded against Kentucky’s frontline, featuring 6-foot-10 sophomore Kyle Wiltjer, 6-foot-10 freshman Nerlens Noel, 7-foot-0 freshman, and 6-foot-7 freshman Alex Poythress.

While Cooley, Martin and Sherman were combining for 25 points and 18 rebounds, the above-mentioned quartet of Wildcats managed 25 points on 10-of-22 shooting and 15 rebounds in 104 minutes. Sounds like they broke even. Not quite. That’s 26 points and nine rebounds below the combined per-game average of Kentucky’s frontline.

“To keep that group to one and done tonight was very much a key,” said Brey, whose squad allowed Kentucky just eight offensive rebounds. “Jack, Sherm and Scott really were good in there rebounding the ball for us. That was a big key to the game, that they didn’t get second shots.”

Cooley, who recorded his sixth double-double in eight games, had scratches all over his face, arms and chest from the physical play in the paint.

“I’m really proud of how we played in terms of the boards,” said Cooley, who finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds. “Having the size and the athleticism that they have, the way that we dominated was great.”

Martin, who failed to score in the first half, hit both of his three-point attempts in the second half and finished with eight points and four rebounds.

“We hit some shots down the stretch,” Martin said. “That was key, and it was timely rebounding. When we absolutely had to have them, we got the ball.”

Martin hangs in: Martin, making his 81st career start, was not deterred by his lack of production in the first half.

“I’ve played enough basketball to know that one half does not define a game,” said Martin, who failed to score in 12 first-half minutes. “I was just waiting for my looks. I started to use that pump fake a little bit to get those big guys to start to fly.”

Martin, a career 30 percent shooter from three-point range, has connected on 5-of-7 in his last two games. One of his three-pointers against the Wildcats was a step-back three.

“That’s the first one of my career,” Martin beamed. “I was pretty proud of that one. I thought that was nice.”

His hard work during the off-season is beginning to pay off.

“I spent a lot of hours in the gym this summer,” Martin said. “Coach and I talked about it during our end-of-the-year meetings. He said, ‘Get shots up, get shots up.’ I took it to heart, and I was in The Pit every day. Coach (Martin) Ingelsby and Coach (Anthony) Solomon work with me every day. Just a lot of hard work paying off.”

A sixth-year senior, Martin faces a battery of “age” jokes. So when he said he went back and looked at some high school tape from his freshman year to double check his shooting mechanics, it was suggested that perhaps the footage was a bit antiquated.

“That was before HD,” Martin laughed. “But it’s nice quality. It’s not grainy.”

Atkins provides early spark: Junior point guard Eric Atkins came out smoking against Kentucky Thursday night. He scored Notre Dame’s first six points and 13 of his 16 points in the first half.

“I think it was something he sensed, and he’s great at that,” said Brey of Atkins’ fast start. “He sensed we needed it and he went to work for us, and we kind of inverted some of our sets where we were bringing him off like a two-man on the baseline.”

Atkins’ only converted three-pointer of the night came at the 10:40 mark of the first half. It gave the Irish a 15-14 lead, which eventually would expand to 20 in the second half.

“We ran a set to get him off the stagger (screen) and get him a jump shot,” Brey said. “That gave us our first lead, which we never gave up.”

Atkins was fired up for the opportunity to play against Kentucky. A 36.6 percent three-point shooter during his first two years with the Irish, Atkins has converted 10-of-23 (.434) so far this season.

“Tonight was a big night,” said Atkins, who is averaging 11.0 points per game. “We were ready all summer getting up for this game. So it doesn’t surprise me to have the energy we brought tonight.

“Jerian (Grant) really set me up with a couple of curls early, and I got going. I just wanted to keep that up and keep myself rolling.”

Brey trusts Atkins to be the lead decision-maker on the court.

“The way our guards were controlling things, those guys were coaching the team,” said Brey, who also got 13 points and six assists from Grant and 10 points and three rebounds from freshman guard Cameron Biedscheid. “Eric Atkins was running the team, calling sets, and when you have a veteran backcourt doing that, I just don’t want to get in their way.

“He knows when to score it. I just love how he’s playing. Running our team, scoring the ball and then guarding a really good player in (Archie) Goodwin. Staying in front of him all night was a heckuva challenge.”

Defense first: Although Mike Brey’s teams through the years predominately have been offensive-first squads, the Irish have become a much better defensive team in recent years. It showed Thursday again when the Irish held Kentucky to .404 shooting (they came into the game at .566) and a mere 25 points in each half.

“We hang our hat on defense,” Grant said. “We studied these guys and figured out what they could and couldn’t do. We went out there and executed.”

“That was a great effort on our part, especially against a team that is as offensively gifted and talented as they are,” Martin said. “They can block your shot and score in two seconds.

“Yeah, we’re definitely pleased with our defensive effort. We left some rebounds out there that we probably could have gotten. But all in all, we’re very pleased with it.”

Clearly, the Irish benefited from Kentucky’s youth and inexperience.

“I heard Coach Cal screaming out plays about 10 times each time down the court,” said Grant of Kentucky head coach John Calipari. “Us having a lot of old guys who have been there, we focus in on defense while they’re scrambling. As the shot clock gets low, we know how to get a stop.”

A football feel: Numerous Irish football players - including Manti Te’o, Kapron Lewis-Moore, the Golic brothers and TJ Jones - were part of the raucous contingent at Purcell Pavilion Thursday night. It was Kentucky’s first true road game, and with four freshmen in the rotation, the Wildcats’ youth was impacted.

“I’ve had teams in that situation,” Brey said. “Never that young, but it can make you play a little fast sometimes if you’re young. It can make you take quick shots if you’re young. It can rattle you a little bit, and I think it did that.

“Our crowd was definitely our sixth man tonight. That building was electric. Having our football guys there was awesome. It was a tough atmosphere to play in, and when our atmosphere is like that, I don’t care if you’re young or old, it’s going to be tough to win in there.”

The Irish have won 106 of the last 113 games played at Purcell Pavilion.

Love those uniforms: From the outside looking in, Notre Dame’s fashion statement drew a few jeers. The all black uniforms with blue numbers outlined in green were very difficult to discern to the naked eye, but easier to conceptualize on camera.

“That’s all part of the plan,” Brey smiled. “They don’t know who to call the fouls on. That way I can move guys around.”

Brey was “in the dark” about the uniforms.

“That’s the first I’ve seen them,” Brey said. “I knew we were going with the black and the green trim. The ones we had a couple years ago were brighter green around the number. But it’s almost like our secret agent uniforms. You just don’t know who’s who.”

While Irish fans tended to offer a thumbs down to the uniforms Thursday night, Brey expects to keep them in the team’s repertoire.

“Our guys love ‘em and the guys we’re recruiting love ‘em, so we’re going to keep wearing them on the road,” Brey said.

Don’t count ‘em out: Brey was happy to be playing Kentucky in late-November. In a few months, that young talent will begin to take shape and take off.

“It will be interesting to see (Ryan) Harrow come back in that point guard role,” said Brey of the sophomore point guard who has been slowed by illness and injury. “Maybe (Archie) Goodwin can get off the ball and do some stuff.

“I love (Kyle) Wiltjer. He’s really a talented guy. He’s only a sophomore. He’s going to get better and better, and he’s going to become the man at times. Their young big guys are really talented.

“I love (Julius) Mays. Mays is a man and a steady guy. You wonder with Harrow back, do they flow differently because they have that quarterback back.”

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