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March 14, 2013

ND plugs into alternative power source

NEW YORK - Pat Connaughton led Notre Dame in scoring one previous time this season - against IPFW on Dec. 7.

Tom Knight scored in double figures just four times this season, and had a mere two points in the previous game against Louisville.

Notre Dame plugged into a different outlet Wednesday night in Madison Square Garden when the No. 3-seeded Irish (24-8) knocked off No. 11 seed Rutgers, 69-61, to advance to quarterfinals action tonight against No. 3 seed Marquette (23-7).

The Connaughton-Knight connection lit it up, combining for 39 points and 12 rebounds for the Irish, who have had to find alternative sources on a fairly regular basis since Scott Martin left the lineup following a knee injury back in January.

Not that Martin was a consistent source of scoring punch for the Irish. But when he was in the mix, Notre Dame’s formula for success tended to follow a similar pattern: Get Jack Cooley his touches, share the basketball, and grind out victories.

Notre Dame has other ways to go these days with a deeper bench, a four-pronged big-man attack, a greater emphasis on transition offense, and - at least Wednesday night - two players who played like first-team all-Big East selections.

Both scored career highs - Connaughton 21 on 7-of-10 shooting, including 6-of-8 from three-point range, and Knight 18 with nine rebounds, both of which were career highs.

“(Knight) has started games scoring for us,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “He gets us going a lot of times scoring the ball.

“I’m really thrilled with Pat. We’ve been on him about shooting the ball, not turning shots down, and we’ve run some sets in practice where I’ve made him shoot it. Tonight he really cashed in. We need him to do that. That was kind of a new element.”

Connaughton has struggled shooting the basketball away from Purcell Pavilion. He missed all four shots at Providence and all four shots at Marquette, games the Irish lost decisively.

After scoring 17 points in his first start of the season against South Florida in late-January, Knight hadn’t scored more than 12 points in any of the previous 11 games, and double figures just three times.

As Cooley continues to struggle putting points on the board - he’s now tallied just 21 points in the last four games after a two-point effort against Rutgers - the Irish are searching for scoring options.

“I came out in the game wanting to provide the energy that the team needed,” said Knight, who tallied his third basket by the 15:43 mark of the first half. “If that was rebounding or scoring, that’s what I would try to do.”

Connaughton has been a more frequent provider of points, although ironically, that seemed to occur more often last season as a freshman than it has during the 2012-13 season.

Last year, Connaughton had five three-pointers against Marquette, six versus Sam Houston State, and seven against Villanova. His six three-pointers against Rutgers Wednesday night were two more than his previous season-high.

“His stroke is beautiful,” said Brey, who also has gotten Connaughton to drive the basketball effectively this season. “His stroke is as good as any stroke we’ve had here. Chris Quinn, Matt Carroll…We just need him to keep stepping up and doing that because we have guys that will find him.

“I tell him (to shoot) all the time. In the first half, he turned a shot down and he had just made two. I said, ‘Don’t do that! Shoot it!’”

Connaughton is catching on.

“It’s something they want me to do, and that’s what helped me through those times when I wasn’t shooting the ball well,” said Connaughton, who connected on just 32.8 percent of his three-point attempts (22-of-65) during the Big East regular season.

“It was something I needed to work on. I need to move without the ball and get to those open spots so those guards can find me, which makes it a little easier on me to get open looks.”

Brey wouldn’t mind if Connaughton and a few others kept confidently shooting from beyond the arc.

“We made big threes tonight,” Brey said. “That’s something I’d like to see us ride. I think we’re a team that can shoot the ball better than we’ve shot it from the arc throughout the year. I would love to see this jump-start us a little bit. It’s a great weapon for us.”

You never know from where Notre Dame’s weapons will emerge.

“It’s huge,” said Connaughton of his combined 39 points with Knight. “It shows that we have another gear that people weren’t really ready for. It’s big for Jerian (Grant) and Eric (Atkins) to have confidence in their teammates. It’s going to take the pressure off them. It’s going to let them relax and hit their shots and do what they do.”


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