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February 13, 2013

OT win (what else?) for Irish

Images by Matt Cashore

NOTRE DAME, Ind. - As the Notre Dame players exited the floor for final instructions before taking on DePaul, Anthony Solomon had a message for each and every player as he passed by the Irish assistant coach.

"Saturday's over! Saturday's over! Saturday's over!" repeated Solomon.

Four days after a five-overtime victory over No. 11 Louisville, and 11 days after Notre Dame needed overtime to defeat DePaul in Chicago, the Fighting Irish (20-5, 8-4) looked as if they had heeded their coach's advice, marching to a 14-point first-half lead.

But after Notre Dame's lead teetered early in the second half, DePaul (10-14, 1-10) went on an 11-1 run, and the game went into overtime tied at 66.

The Irish never trailed in the extra five minutes as Pat Connaughton's three-pointer with 2:44 remaining, and five free throws among Connaughton, Jerian Grant and Jack Cooley, wrapped up an 82-78 overtime victory.

The victory was Notre Dame's 20th of the year, marking the seventh season in a row the Irish have reached that figure. The Irish also have won all three overtime games in the last two weeks.

"There was more frustration than Saturday night," said Irish head coach Mike Brey of his team going to overtime once again. "I just said, 'We can't dwell on it. We're in game situations now. Let's just flush it and relax, man. Yeah, you threw the ball away and made a mistake. You took a bad shot. You screwed up on defense. Here's where we're at right now. Let's just figure out a way to escape with a win.'"

The Irish never trailed in overtime, and once again, they rode the hot hand of Jerian Grant, who finished with 21 points, nine assists and five rebounds after scoring 12 points in the final minute of regulation Saturday night against Louisville to start the procession of overtimes.

Grant's driving lay-up and one with 1:39 left in overtime gave the Irish a four-point lead. He added two free throws with 25.9 seconds remaining to help secure the victory.

"When we need a basket, when we need a play, the guys give me the ball," Grant said. "When they give me confidence like that, I think I can be that guy."

Brey was confident that Connaughton would be "that guy" as well, despite the fact that he didn't practice Sunday, Monday or Tuesday after injuring his right foot/ankle against Louisville.

But Connaughton ended up logging 30 minutes, and although he scored just seven points, his three-pointer from the corner with under three minutes left in overtime gave the Irish the Irish much-needed breathing room.

"He was pretty sore the last two days, but I knew he'd play," said Brey of Connaughton. "There's not a tougher athlete at this school. He's a tough dude…He will not have to sweat again until lay-up lines at Providence (Saturday)."

Jack Cooley scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for his 17th double-double of the season and 30th of his career. Cooley led Notre Dame's backboard brigade, which out-rebounded the Blue Demons, 44-25.

"You've got to expect it from DePaul," Cooley said. "We did not play poorly. They're such a great scoring team. You go into overtime and it kind of was, 'Here we go again.' But that (five overtimes) was not going to happen again. We were going to put it away."

The Irish looked as if they'd put it away much earlier when they took a 14-point lead with 22.5 seconds left in the first half. The game was tied five times and the lead exchanged hands five times. Notre Dame converted 55.2 percent of its shots (16-of-29) and assisted on 12 baskets. Fifteen of Notre Dame's first-half points came from Cam Biedscheid (7), Zach Auguste (4) and Garrick Sherman (4) off the bench.

But behind the strong second-half play of Cleveland Melvin (23 points), and an uncharacteristic 15 turnovers by the Irish, the Blue Demons began chipping away at the Irish lead, much like they did in Chicago on Feb. 2.

Brandon Young tossed in 20 points, and Donnavan Kirk (16) and Jamee Crockett (10) also scored in double figures. In the end, however, it was another frustrating loss for the Blue Demons.

"I'm not happy with it, but I'm encouraged that our guys continue to fight," said DePaul head coach Oliver Purnell. "We continue to get ready, and I thought in the second half, we had much more of a sense of urgency and energy. I'm encouraged, but I'm not happy."

Eric Atkins was the only other Irish player to join Grant and Cooley in double-figure scoring with 13 points and 3-of-6 shooting from three-point range. He also matched Grant's assist total of nine.

Count Atkins - who played 60 minutes against Louisville and 42 against DePaul Wednesday night - as one who was not looking forward to another overtime game against the Blue Demons.

"I was pissed," Atkins laughed. "I didn't feel like playing anymore. We went to overtime (in Chicago) with (DePaul), and we had to do whatever to get another win tonight."

Brey became the first Irish coach to win at least 20 games seven seasons in a row.

"I'm really proud of that," said Brey, whose team has won 35 of its last 48 Big East games. "For our program to have that, I think that's really a sign of our consistency.

"I talked with the staff in the pre-season and said, 'You know, if we get to that, to have seven in a row and have the record, that's something I'm really proud of.' I think it's been kind of machine-like consistency, quite frankly.

"Certainly, we aspire to do more things in March. But man, you've got to grind this thing in January and February especially, and I really like how we've done that."


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