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Notre Dame's defense turns back Cincinnati

The SportsXchange

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It's too soon to tell whether Notre Dame has turned into a defensive juggernaut.

But prospects are promising after the Irish defense turned in another dominating performance in Sunday's 62-41 Big East victory over Cincinnati.

Jerian Grant led a balanced attack with 13 points as Notre Dame (22-6, 10-5 Big East) concluded a season sweep front of 9,149 fans at Purcell Pavilion.

The Irish held the Bearcats (19-9, 7-8) to a season-low 41 points along with 17-for-54 shooting (31.5 percent) and just two 3-pointers.

They also outrebounded the visitors by a lopsided 43-27 margin.

"I am so pleased and excited about our defensive and rebounding identity that we've really done now two games in a row," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose team also held No. 20 Pitt to 42 points last Monday.

"We did a great job staying in front of people who wanted to beat us off the dribble," he added. "We did a great job of keeping to one and done and then you add that to 40 minutes of really good offensive efficiency."

The Irish remained in the hunt for a Big East regular season title. But catching conference-leading Georgetown (11-3) may be problematic with only three games left and no more regular season meetings.

Still, Notre Dame can land an elevated Big East tourney seed. And with 22 wins and double-digit conference triumphs, prospects for a high NCAA tournament berth are also increasingly good.

Tom Knight joined Grant in double figures with 12 points while Jack Cooley and Eric Atkins each added 11 as Notre Dame never trailed in its fourth win in five games.

JaQuon Parker had 12 points for the Bearcats.

Cincinnati has lost three straight and five of its last six games.

"You have to play great to win here," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "We played bad."

Notre Dame used a 13-2 run over an 8 1/2-minute first-half span to open a 19-6 lead.

Cincinnati struggled with just 3-for-15 shooting (20 percent) in the same stretch, including several misses in the paint. The Bearcats had just one field goal in a span of more than 10 minutes.

That pattern was repeated throughout the game.

"I feel like they didn't score sometimes for three- or four-minute stretches because we would get three or four stops in a row and one or two threes to go on a 10-0 run," Grant said. "Getting defensive stops was what did it."

The Irish went on to a 29-15 halftime lead as Pat Connaughton hit a baseline 3-pointer with 2.8 seconds showing. Connaughton, Cooley and Knight each had six first-half points.

The Bearcats missed their first four shots and had a turnover to open the second half. Notre Dame's Atkins, meanwhile, hit a short jumper and followed with a baseline 3-pointer to open a game-high 19-point lead at 34-15.

A different Cincinnati team then briefly emerged.

The Bearcats responded with an 11-3 surge that cut the Notre Dame lead to 37-26 by the 12:50 mark. The advantage dwindled to single digits at 39-30 on Shaquille Thomas' jumper in the paint.

But a Cooley 3-point play and Grant's two free throws pushed the lead back to double digits at 44-30, the start of an 11-2 run.

Atkins' two free throws with 7:33 to play pushed the lead back to 18 at 50-32 and Cincinnati never got closer than 15 points the rest of the way and had no field goals in the final 4:40.

"We got beat, beat real bad," Cincinnati's Parker said. "We made a nice little run in the second half, but we started giving up threes."

Notes: Notre Dame also beat Cincinnati 66-60 on Jan. 7 on the Bearcats' home court. ... It's been a wearying recent run for the Irish. Sunday's game was the third in six games for a team had had played six overtime sessions just before the current stretch. Notre Dame's last outing was a 51-42 win over No. 20 Pittsburgh last Monday. ... Cooley remains No. 2 in the nation with 27 double-doubles and led the team with a 14.5 points and 11.1 rebounds prior to facing Cincinnati. ... Parker, the Bearcats senior guard, landed on last week's Big East honor roll after averaging 17 points, six rebounds and four assists in two games. ... Teammate Sean Kilpatrick came in Sunday as the Big East's No. 4 scorer, averaging 17.2 points per game. ... Irish guard Scott Martin was back in uniform and on the bench after missing eight games with a sore knee. ... Cincinnati slipped to 0-5 at South Bend and is 4-10 all-time against Notre Dame. ... Both teams are idle until Saturday when the Bearcats host Connecticut while the Irish are at No. 17 Marquette. Both have two more conference games after that before starting Big East tourney play in New York.
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