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February 24, 2013

ND in cruise control vs. 'Cats

Images by Matt Cashore

NOTRE DAME, Ind. - This one was expected to be quite a bit more difficult.

But since Notre Dame (22-6, 10-5) reverted back to its physical style of play six days earlier at Pittsburgh, the Irish have learned once again how to play to their strengths.

It translated into a 62-41 victory Sunday afternoon against Cincinnati, which was every bit as easy and efficient as the score indicated. It was the fewest points allowed by Notre Dame in a Big East game since the Irish joined the conference in 1995.

"Maybe we're finding our identity here on that defensive end of the floor and rebounding the basketball," said Irish head coach Mike Brey of his team's 43-27 advantage on the backboards and in limiting the Bearcats (19-9, 7-8) to 31.5 percent shooting from the field.

"I thought we did a great job of keeping people in front of us that wanted to beat us off the dribble, and we did a great job of keeping it to one-and-done. Four big guys all giving us good stuff. Add 40 minutes of very good offensive efficiency, and you have a great team win."

Jack Cooley, Tom Knight, Garrick Sherman and Zach Auguste - Notre Dame's 6-foot-10-and-above brigade - combined for 27 points and 29 rebounds, including 10 on the offensive end. That marks the second game in a row the Irish have hammered a quality rebounding team after Monday's 40-25 advantage over the Panthers.

Cincinnati came into the game with the Big East's top rebounding margin while ranking fifth nationally in rebounds per game at 41.0.

"We got out-rebounded by 16, which is inexcusable," said Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin. "Our centers need to try harder. They had zero deflections between the three of them. Now we're playing small a lot because we're getting no production from them."

The Irish shot to a 19-6 lead with a 13-2 run in the first 11 minutes of the game, built the lead to 19 points in the first half, let it dwindle down to nine with 10:26 left in the game, and then pulled away by assisting on 18 of 22 baskets.

"I couldn't think of a better time of the season to start clicking like we are," said Cooley, who finished with 11 points and eight rebounds in a well-rested 26 minutes of action. "It's helpful to have these other guys helping out because it (prevents) my body from getting beat to heck. It's really good to have that system."

Knight, making his ninth straight start, had 12 points and seven rebounds while Sherman (four points, five rebounds) and Auguste (nine rebounds) dominated the Bearcats up front.

Despite missing all six of his three-point attempts, Jerian Grant finished with a team-leading 13 points, aided by a 9-of-9 effort from the free-throw line.

"In the past, guys wouldn't really worry about us defensively in the post because we were smaller than them," Knight said. "But now, guys know they can't drive past the guards and try to get to the basket because they know they have two 6-foot-10 guys waiting for them on the back line."

Notre Dame shut down Cincinnati's vaunted three-point attack. The Bearcats came into the game averaging 21.5 three-point attempts and seven made three-pointers per game. In fact, they hit nine against the Irish on 16 attempts in Notre Dame's 66-60 victory over Cincinnati back on Jan. 7.

The Bearcats converted just 2-of-12 from beyond the arc, including a 3-of-13 shooting performance by Cincinnati's leading scorer - Sean Kilpatrick - who missed all three of his three-point attempts. Kilpatrick and guard Cashmere Wright, who had 129 three-pointers between them through the first 27 games, were a combined 0-of-5 from beyond the arc.

"They're a really good three-point shooting team, and they look for it a lot," said Eric Atkins, who scored 11 points with six assists. "We always pressed up on them and tried to make them a two-point shooting team, and really tried to make their bigs try to beat us."

"They made nine on us down there, and if they make threes, it's going to get interesting," Brey added. "We did a really good job of guarding the arc. Our big guys were great on the ball screens, and then our big guys were great rotating back to their guy. (Cincinnati) could never really get going offensively."
The Irish made their first four shots from the field and raced to a 14-4 lead less than nine minutes into the game. Cronin called timeouts within 2:33 of one another in an attempt to stop the slide. But a 16-2 Irish run gave Notre Dame a 22-6 lead before settling for a 29-15 halftime advantage on Pat Connaughton's three-pointer with 2.2 seconds left.

In addition to setting a school record for fewest points allowed in a Big East game, the Irish also set a school mark by allowing the Bearcats just 15 first-half points.

Cincinnati, shooting 41.1 percent from the field - second to last in the Big East - managed just 7-of-25 shooting (28.0 percent) in the first half. Meanwhile, Notre Dame connected on half of its 24 field-goal attempts. Eleven of Notre Dame's 12 first-half baskets were assisted.

After playing six games in 17 days, the Irish looked refreshed since the last game at Pittsburgh.

"The (six days between games) helped, but I also think it had us chomping at the bit to compete," Brey said. "We were a little wacky to compete, and I love it. I was wacky. I got in a fight with everybody at home because we hadn't played in six days. I woke up (Saturday) and was like, 'Today?' Our guys were a little bit like that."

The victory was Notre Dame's 10th Big East conquest of the season, marking the fourth straight year the Irish have reached double figures and ninth time in 13 years under Brey.

"It's one of the things I'm extremely proud of when we do that here, and we've done it a lot," Brey said. "The consistency of our program in regular-season Big East play - which gets you an NCAA tournament bid - is something we really hang our hat on. We're proud of that."

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