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Supporting cast leads Notre Dame to Big East tourney win over Rutgers

The SportsXchange

NEW YORK -- With its top star struggling, Notre Dame turned to its supporting cast to defeat Rutgers 69-61 in the first round of the Big East Tournament Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.

Jack Cooley, who leads the No. 24 Irish (24-8), seeded sixth in the tournament, in most offensive categories, scored just two points, his lowest output of the season.

But Pat Connaughton and Tom Knight picked up the load for the Irish.

Connaughton, a sophomore swing man, took care of the perimeter scoring by depositing 6 of 8 3-pointers on his way to a game-high 21 points.

The 6-foot-10 Knight, who on most nights plays Robin to Cooley's Batman, accumulated 18 points and nine rebounds while patrolling the low post.

The pesky Scarlet Knights (15-16), seeded 11th, received a season-high 18 points from power forward Austin Johnson and guard Myles Mack.

The Irish meet third-seeded Marquette in the quarterfinals on Thursday. The Golden Eagles claimed a 72-64 win in the only meeting this season of the two teams.

Rutgers managed to draw to within five points, 52-47 on a 3-pointer from Mack at the 6:05 mark, but Connaughton and Jerian Grant combined for all of Notre Dame's seven points in a 7-2 run to provide the Irish with a comfortable 59-49 lead with 4:03 to play.

The Scarlet Knights trimmed the Notre Dame lead to six points earlier in the half at 49-43, but a Connaughton 3 gave the Irish a little breathing room and a 52-43 cushion with 8:50 to play.

"One thing about Pat (Connaughton), when the lights are the brightest and the stakes are the highest he's at his best," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. "We have a team that can really pass the pall. We find the guy that's open and tonight he (Pat) really cashed in on it."

With Cooley having an off night, Brey had no problem with Connaughton being the primary focus of his offense.

"He's got a great stroke," Brey said. "We need him to be aggressive. I think this kind of catapults him a little bit. I told him if he turns down a shot, I'm going to get a technical because I'm going to tackle him if he turns down any more shots during the rest of the post-season."

Connaughton benefited from numerous open looks as a result of ball screens and quick movement without the ball.

"Moving without the ball, to get those open looks, was something I needed to work on," he said, "so those guards could find me easier."

Rutgers coach Mike Rice credited Connaughton with slithering through his team's defense.

"When you're running and trapping and doing some things, we just lost him," Rice said. "You can't lose Pat Connaughton. Of anybody, you can't lose him."

Cooley had a quiet first half with just two points, but he compensated with his typical ferocious play on the boards, grabbing eight rebounds.

Knight and Eric Atkins picked up the offensive slack from Cooley in the first half. Knight popped in 10 points and Atkins contributed seven to help the Irish to a 33-19 halftime advantage.

Rutgers was as close as 9-7 before the Irish used a 9-0 run to move to an 18-7 cushion with 10:50 to go in the half. Atkins scored four points in the burst.

Kadeem Jack topped Rutgers with eight points in 10 minutes of action off the bench.

"We just didn't play two halves," Rice admitted. "We didn't have any passion or energy or intensity the first half."

All eight quarterfinalists have at least 20 wins.

NOTES: Cooley is fourth in the nation in double-doubles with 19. He's tied for sixth in rebounds per game (10.6) and eighth in field-goal percentage (.582). ... Notre Dame ranks first nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.57) and the Irish are third in assists per game with 17.5. ... The 19-point win over DePaul in the first round on Tuesday represented Rutgers' largest margin of victory in the tournament.
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