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February 2, 2013

ND sets up clash with ‘Cuse

ROSEMONT, Ill. - Eric Atkins often saves his best for when the clock is approaching zero.

He brought his A game again Saturday afternoon in overtime at Allstate Arena, scoring seven of his 16 points in the extra five minutes of Notre Dame’s 79-71 victory over DePaul.

“I just feel like during those tough times, my team really looks to me to hit a big shot, and I feel like if it has to be anybody on this team, it’s going to be Jerian (Grant) or me. We really embrace that.”

Grant had his opportunity with 2.2 seconds remaining in regulation when he launched a three-pointer with the score tied at 70. The shot missed, and then Atkins took over in the extra session, making a steal on DePaul’s opening possession, hitting a three-pointer as the shot clock ticked down near zero of Notre Dame’s first possession, followed by four straight free throws to seal the victory.

“Some big-time decisions he made and big shots,” summarized Irish head coach Mike Brey, who recorded his 139th Big East victory to move into a tie for fourth all-time in conference history with Lou Carnesecca of St. John’s.

“He is a veteran guard in this league, and our poise collectively comes from his poise. I’m so trusting of him, I’m asking him in the huddles, ‘What do you want to run? What do you think is best?’ I really trust his feedback of our system and what’s working.”

Everything was working well for the Irish (18-4, 6-3) in the first half, at least after the first TV timeout. After trailing 10-3, Notre Dame switched to a 2-3 zone defense, and the impact on DePaul’s shooting was instantaneous. A 12-2 and a 10-0 run turned a seven-point deficit into an 11-point lead before settling for a 39-30 halftime advantage.

Jack Cooley was a beast again for the Irish. After scoring 17 points and grabbing 16 rebounds Wednesday night against Villanova, Cooley finished with a season-high 26 points while snagging another 16 rebounds. He is averaging 13.2 rebounds per game over the last five.

“It was huge for our team to get that win, especially for me to play well,” said Cooley, a Glenview, Ill., native returning to his old stomping grounds.

“I looked up in the stands and got really excited. Literally, the whole section behind the bench was my friends and family. It was good to see them all there.”

Notre Dame’s control of the game slipped away in the second half as the lead changed hands eight times over the final 8:36 of regulation. The game was tied four times during that stretch, including 70-70 when it went into overtime following Grant’s missed jumper.

Cam Biedscheid and Zach Auguste came off the bench to toss in a combined 13 points in 19 minutes of action in the first half. Biedscheid hit a three-pointer and had a tip-in en route to seven first-half points. Auguste had a rebound basket off a miss by Atkins, a slam dunk off an alley-oop pass from Atkins, and another follow-up tip off an Atkins miss to finish with six points, a pair of rebounds, and a blocked shot in the first half.

The Irish would finish just 21-of-32 from the free-throw line. But a pair of free throws each by Cooley and Grant in the final three minutes of regulation, as well as four straight by Atkins in overtime, were enough to keep the Irish in the win column for the third straight game.

“Somebody told me we’ve got the eighth hardest schedule in February,” said Brey, as he prepared to take his team to Syracuse for a Monday night clash after the Orange fell at Pittsburgh earlier Saturday. “I know what’s coming in February. We’ve got murderer’s row.

“To get to six league wins halfway through the league is huge for us, and you know what? I think we’re getting better. Zach Auguste and Cam together in the first half was something new. I just love the energy they brought.”

A win at Syracuse will take a monstrous effort, particularly with the Orange coming off a loss. Coupled with a loss by Marquette Sunday at Louisville, the Irish could go into Monday’s game with Syracuse just one game out of first place in the loss column.

“Monday night, after getting this one, we’ve got nothing to lose,” Brey said. “Let it rip. We’ve got to get some energy back. That was a hard one tonight.

“But have fun in the Carrier Dome. Nothing to lose. Another great college atmosphere, and obviously a team that will want to bounce back after a loss today.”

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