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January 19, 2013

Irish survive Rutgers, 69-66

NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- Leave it up to the wily veteran to make the game-deciding play.

Sixth-year senior Scott Martin - slowed by knee problems the last three games - took a charge on Rutgers' leading scorer, Eli Carter, with 2.3 seconds remaining as No. 20/20 Notre Dame (15-3, 3-2) ended a two-game skid in Big East play by hanging on for a 69-66 victory Saturday night at Purcell Pavilion.

"I figured they were going to try to get to the rim, and my man was just standing in the corner - I hope," laughed Martin. "That's where I last saw him.

"I just tried to get to the spot. I knew they wanted to get to the rim, and I was able to get there just in time. Hopefully, I got outside the circle. I thought I did."

Moments later, Eric Atkins hit two free throws with 1.6 seconds on the clock to secure the victory.

"That's a huge win for us," said Irish head coach Mike Brey. "I'm thrilled. In this league, when you lose a couple, you figure out a way to get one. A one-game win streak is huge in this league.

"Scott Martin taking that charge…that would be the guy to make a play like that at the end."

Leading by seven at half, the Irish went on a 10-4 run to start the second half to take a 48-35 lead with 16:49 remaining. But the Scarlet Knights (12-5, 3-3) quickly brought the deficit down to single digits with an 11-2 run, and then pulled to within one of the Irish in the final minute as both teams encountered turnover problems.

Rutgers forced the Irish into 11 second-half turnovers. That led to an opportunity to win it - trailing by one -- after Atkins was tied up with 2.9 seconds remaining and the possession arrow pointing to the Scarlet Knights.

"That's exactly what I wanted. That's how you win games in the Big East," said Rutgers head coach Mike Rice of Carter's shot. "You take your best player and I love the way we executed it. I disagreed (with the call), but those things happen."

Notre Dame used 7-0 and 8-2 runs in the first half to forge a nine-point lead that dipped back to seven (37-31) at halftime. Two baskets and a free throw by Jack Cooley within the first 2:40 of the second half and a three-pointer by Pat Connaughton quickly gave the Irish a 13-point lead.

Cooley, who struggled in Notre Dame's last outing against St. John's Tuesday night, bounced back with 19 points and 10 rebounds in 34 minutes of action. Connaughton finished with 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field and 4-of-6 from three-point range.

The Irish had three players in double figures by halftime: Connaughton with 11, and Cooley and Atkins with 10 each.

"I watched a lot of film the last couple days," Cooley said. "I watched the last two games and I watched some film from last year against Rutgers, which was a phenomenal game, probably one of the best games I've had in my career.

"I watched that game and saw the tenacity that I had, and I just said, 'I've got to get back to that. That's what I do. That's why everyone says I'm good.' So I just had to get back to that."

Connaughton's 17 points were one shy of his season high.

"That was just the flow," Connaughton said. "We all come out and play the game, and if you're open, you shoot it. If you're not, you drive."

The Irish also got a boost from 6-foot-10, 258-pound senior Tom Knight, who was elevated to the first big man off the bench after a strong performance against St. John's. Knight struggled in five minutes of action in the first half, failing to score a point or grab a rebound.

But Knight scored six points in a 1:41 stretch - two free throws and a pair of turnaround jumpers in the lane - to give the Irish a lift after the Scarlet Knights cut the deficit to four midway through the second half.

"I was really down on him in the first half," said Brey of Knight. "I thought he didn't grab some rebounds and he wasn't active. But he gave us energy in New York the other night.

"We've got to get him rebounding a little more. But he does block some shots for us and he flies around out there."

Atkins finished with 14 points, four assists, two steals and five turnovers. Jerian Grant gave the Irish a significant spark with nine points and 10 assists.

Rutgers was led by Carter, who finished with 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting. Five-foot-nine guard Myles Mack was the only other Scarlet Knight in double figures with 12 points. Dane Miller led Rutgers with nine rebounds.

A check for $10,033 to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy - raised through an auction sponsored by Notre Dame -- was presented to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during the first TV timeout of the first half. Christie's friendship with Brey goes back to Brey's days as the head coach at Delaware.

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