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March 14, 2013

Tim Prister's Full Court Press

Irish Illustrated Editors Column

NEW YORK - The performance was so impressive that no one even thought to ask about the lime green camouflage.

No. 6 seed Notre Dame - led by a unique scoring combo - came out smoking against No. 11 Rutgers Wednesday night, took numerous body punches in the second half, but was still taking swings of its own down stretch in its 69-61 victory over the Scarlet Knights.

The Irish (24-8) advanced to Big East tournament quarterfinals action Thursday night against No. 3 seed Marquette (23-7).

"Oh, yeah, yeah, we expected to hang out a while," said Irish head coach Mike Brey when asked if - as suggested by ESPN's announcing crew - he told his team to pack for a long week in the Big Apple.

"No question. We love New York City. I'll take that over South Bend for a while. We're going to stay."

The Irish may have left some doubt in the second half as Rutgers (15-16) - trailing 33-19 at halftime - scored 42 second-half points on 51.4 percent shooting, and quickly whittled into Notre Dame's first-half dominance.

But every time the Irish needed to keep some distance between themselves and the Scarlet Knights, someone made a play to stem the tide.

"One of the things I talked about in the Louisville locker room was that I wanted us to be more focused, more mature, more poised than we were during the regular season," Brey said.

"During two or three of the timeouts during the first half, I thought we were playing like men. It was like coaching men. There was a poise about us, and in the second half when they put game pressure on us, we reacted with great maturity. I hope we can bottle that here in March."

That maturity started with senior Tom Knight, whose three baskets before the first TV timeout and 10 points in the first half got the Irish out of the starting gate squealing its tires. He would finish with 18 points and nine rebounds - both career highs.

"I came out to the game wanting to provide the energy that the team needed," Knight said. "If that was rebounding or scoring, that's what I would try to do."

Coming of age was sophomore Pat Connaughton, who scored a season-high 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting, including 6-of-8 from three-point range.

Connaughton, who had made as many as four three-pointers in a game this season just one previous time, found a rhythm from beyond the arc that punched a needle in the spine of every Rutgers comeback attempt, of which there were several in the second half.

"To be honest, that's what the coaches kind of said," said Connaughton, when asked if he's ever surprised that he doesn't have shooting nights like that more often.

"It's something that they needed more out of me, and that's something I took to heart. I've been getting to the gym extra, shooting a little more. Focusing, fine-tuning some things so that I'm ready to shoot the ball and I'm ready to have more nights like this."

It was a real quality post-season performance, albeit against a Rutgers team that lost 13 out of 18 Big East games during the regular season. But as was evident at Purcell Pavilion back on Jan. 19, Rutgers has personnel, if not the cohesion of a veteran unit like Notre Dame.

Austin Johnson - who had scored in double figures just twice all season - tossed in a career-high 18 points as the 6-foot-8, 250-pound senior carved up the Irish on the inside. Kadeem Jack came off the bench to score 10 points as Wally Judge - who hit all nine of his shots the previous night against DePaul - got into foul trouble and managed just two points on 1-of-6 shooting.

While the Scarlet Knights scored five more baskets than the Irish in the second half, 15 of their 18 baskets were of the two-point variety. That wasn't a coincidence. Rutgers had four more baskets but eight less points than the Irish.

"We didn't let them get going from the arc," Brey said. "(Myles Mack and Jerome Seagears) knocking down threes would have changed the whole complexion. What we gave up was some inside stuff. We didn't help (down low) as much. We hugged the perimeter. Overall, over the course of time, that paid its dues (for) us."

As Jack Cooley continued to struggle in the scoring column, he did his job on the backboards, tying Knight for a game-high nine rebounds. Guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant were relatively quiet with a combined 18 points on just 5-of-13 shooting.

But they combined for eight assists and confidently kept feeding the basketball to the hot hands, who led the Irish to a start-to-finish advantage on the scoreboard. The victory marked the fifth straight season the Irish have recorded at least one victory in the Big East tournament.

Notre Dame converted 10-of-12 free throws in the second half, limited its turnovers to four in the first half and five in the second half, and won the battle of the backboards, 39-34, after losing that head-to-head match-up, 31-26, in their previous meeting.

The Irish have come a long way since then without veteran Scott Martin. Their rotation is deeper with four big men, and they have, for the most part, taken advantage of that size. They can now run a little bit with the guards leading the charge, or they can slow things down and grind it out in the half-court game.

No one is putting the glass slipper on the Irish just yet. They would have to get by Marquette and then probably No. 2 seed Louisville before taking on No. 1 seed Georgetown in the conference championship game. That's quite a gauntlet on the road to post-season glory.

But to take a veteran Notre Dame team for granted this time of the year would be a mistake. They played confidently during prosperous as well as desperate times Wednesday night. They have just enough assets in enough areas to expose another team's shortcomings and make a run.

Even some foul concerns in Notre Dame's thin backcourt couldn't derail the Irish as Atkins picked up his second foul just 6:22 into the game and Grant was whistled for his third foul with 1:08 left in the first half.

"Those guys have played a lot," Brey said. "My attitude was, 'They'll figure out a way to get through this and be smart about it.' They were smart, they played like veteran guys."

Marquette head coach Buzz Williams watched the Irish from behind the basket nearest the Irish bench. When Brey spotted him after the game, he jokingly yelled at Williams that he could leave the arena now.

Williams will be stalking the sidelines for the Golden Eagles tonight, and he won't have the comfort of the BMO Harris Bradley Center on his side, as he did two-and-a-half weeks ago when Marquette took a quick double-digit lead in the first half and defeated the Irish by eight.

Williams has taught his Golden Eagles how to win, claiming a No. 3 seed in the tournament despite losing top scorers Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom from last year's squad. Marquette doesn't shoot it very straight from any kind of distance from the basket, but like Notre Dame, they offer winning ingredients in just about everything they do.

If the Irish can contain Marquette big men Chris Otule (which they couldn't in Milwaukee) or Davante Gardner, who can carve up opponents with his inside-outside game, they could hang around for another day.

The Irish wore lime green, long-sleeve t-shirts as part of their new adidas swag, which was a bit shocking the first time the Irish came onto the court with blinding lime green shoes and socks to match. On those t-shirts, it reads: Rise to the Occasion.

That's what the Irish did Wednesday night. The stakes - and the competition - take a significant bump up late tonight in the Garden.

Maybe the Irish can put forth another shocking performance to match their ensemble.






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