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Knight keys Notre Dame's rally to beat South Florida

The SportsXchange

TAMPA, Fla. -- Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said his team tried "reinventing" itself this week, knowing senior captain Scott Martin is out indefinitely due to a lingering left knee issue.

But while the 24th-ranked Irish lost some ability to step out and shoot from the outside, they added some muscle in the middle and got a surprising lift from senior Tom Knight in a 73-65 win over USF Saturday at the Sun Dome.

Knight, making his fourth career start, racked up a career-high 17 points in helping Notre Dame (16-4, 4-3 in the Big East) overcome a nine-point second-half deficit. It was the first time Knight had cracked double figures in 57 college games.

"It was great," said the 6-foot-10, 258-pound forward. "I knew, when Scott went down, coaches were relying on me to step up. I came out with all the energy I had and really got up for this game."

It was another deflating defeat for the Bulls (10-9, 1-6), who have lost six of their last seven after going 12-6 in conference play in their NCAA tournament run last year.

"This is a really good league," USF coach Stan Heath said. "There are no nights off. We face teams that have different strengths than you; sometimes you just match up better against a certain opponent. I don't think we're any different than anybody else; it's just the way the ball bounces."

South Florida, which entered the game with the league's worst shooting percentage (37.8), took a seven-point halftime lead by making 60 percent of its shots.

With forwards Toarlyn Fitzpatrick (seven points) and Victor Rudd (seven points) struggling, South Florida got a lift off the bench from two freshmen: Forward Zach LeDay scored a team-high 17 points, and guard JaVontae Hawkins had 11.

"We're trying to get bigger and better and trying to make it to the next level," LeDay said.

Star point guard Anthony Collins made all four of his shots in the first half, and the Bulls held Notre Dame scoreless in the final five minutes to go on a 10-0 run.

"He's a fearless guy. There's no one else like him in our league," Brey said. "Nobody plays like him at the point, who can just weave in and get down low and kick to shooters at the last minute.

"If we didn't fix that, we would have lost by 15, and we did a better job in the second half."

The Irish mounted their comeback quickly, clamping down defensively -- Collins had just two points in the final 20 minutes. They jump-started their offense with baskets in transition. Junior guard Eric Atkins (13 points) hit two 3-pointers and sophomore Pat Connaughton (12 points) made a layup and a 3-pointer to give the Irish a three-point lead five minutes into the second half.

Brey credited his team's resiliency, considering it had lost three of its last four games, including a blowout defeat at home Monday against Georgetown.

"I knew they'd come out after last game and really play," Heath said. "I thought we did, too. But I just thought once they got that momentum going in the second half, we just couldn't get it back."

The Bulls lack the experience and size in the frontcourt they had last year, having lost seniors Ron Anderson and Augustus Gilchrist. And they continued to get beat up on the boards, with Notre Dame outrebounding them 34-17, including 13 on the offensive end.

"They lost some studs on that front line," Brey said. "They're a very different team."

The Irish took advantage, using their size to set screens and control the key. Knight's memorable day included a key block and putback dunk in the second half. Knight, who played a key role off the bench last season, was starting in his first Big East game and logged 32 minutes. He noted he got more comfortable as the game wore on, having turned the ball over and missed a jumper on his first two touches.

"He's playing with confidence," said junior guard Jerian Grant, who had a team-high 18 points. "A lot of people knew he had it. When he got into the game, he didn't have the confidence, but now he has it. He's knocking down shots, rebounding, blocking shots. It's definitely something we need the rest of the year."

NOTES: Notre Dame has averaged 75 points in four Big East wins, 56 points in three Big East losses. ... The Bulls are 1-10 against the Irish. ... Bulls forward Victor Rudd is 3 for 13 in 3-pointers the last three games.
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