NEW YORK - With its leading 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 most offensive categories, scored just two points, his lowest output of the season, but he was picked up by Pat Connaughton and Tom Knight.
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 trey gave his team some comfort and a 52-43 cushion with 8:50 to play.
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 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.
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.