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December 19, 2012

Irish remain under construction

NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Mike Brey benched Jerian Grant on Wednesday night, looking to spark the junior guard. Now the Irish will likely be without Grant entirely when they close the non-conference schedule on Friday night.

In the final minutes of Notre Dame’s 85-57 runaway from Kennesaw State at Purcell Pavilion, Grant broke loose at mid-court, then attacked the basket for a would-be tomahawk dunk. Jordan Montgomery met Grant in mid-air with a flagrant foul that knocked both players out of the game.

“I think it’s going to be very questionable for Friday with a bruised back,” Brey said. “I just think he is going to be too sore to do anything until we get back from Christmas.”

No. 22 Notre Dame (11-1) looked like a program that can’t wait to get past the holidays and into the Big East, despite needing some practice before opening league play.

Brey didn’t want to talk about why he sat Grant to start the game. The junior entered with 12:20 left in the first half and finished with 14 points, tied for the team-high with Jack Cooley. Pat Connaughton and Zach Auguste each had a dozen, a career-high for the freshman big man who could fight his way into the rotation.

Grant joins Garrick Sherman, who started in the guard’s place, on Brey’s list of players he’s tried to motivate by threatening minutes.

The Irish may have five returning starters from last year’s tourney team but appear far from a finished product closing out December.

“I’ve tried to keep an open mind to try to not have it figured out,” Brey said. “I think I have to have an open mind all year. Sometimes at some point I start locking (the rotation), maybe I just need to keep a little more of an open mind.

“I don’t think that’s a bad thing that we don’t have it all figured out because I do think we can continue to get better as a team.”

The rout of Kennesaw State (1-9) - coached by former Notre Dame assistant Lewis Preston - didn’t get started until the second half after the Irish fully engaged in the game. Notre Dame was sharp from three-point range early but lagged almost everywhere else, mixing up the rotation with Grant out of sync.

“I think anybody that gets moved to the bench is a little frustrated about it,” said point guard Eric Atkins. “Understandably so he was. I know that he came out and struggled in the first half, but in the second half he really got it going.”

The final 20 minutes provided a glimpse of what Notre Dame could be, opening on a 12-2 run and blitzing Kennesaw State out of the building. Atkins finished with a career-high 13 assists. Cooley finished with his fifth double-double (14 points, 13 rebounds) in the last seven games.

After squeaking by Kennesaw State on the glass in the first half (16-11), Notre Dame dominated the boards in the second (20-6).

“Just the way we moved the ball was phenomenal,” Cooley said. “We were finding everyone. We locked up extremely well on defense. They didn’t score anywhere near as easily as they did in the first half.

“The second half was the way we play. That just showed how we separated ourselves so easily and just played really well.”

With a starting lineup taking on different roles plus a bench that’s under development, it leaves Notre Dame as a team still finding its way through the non-conference schedule, even if there’s just one game left in it. After hosting Niagara on Friday night, Notre Dame doesn’t play again for 15 days.

“With how we play, I think we know what we’re doing offensively, defensively,” Atkins said. “I think the subs, I think that kind of changes it up a little bit with Garrick and Cam, still getting used to them. That’s the only difference, getting used to how they play.

“We’ve got to get through Friday for it to be Big East time. We are almost there.”

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