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Notre Dame destroyed South Florida at the Sun Dome today, 78-55.

Three unlikely events collided today at the Sun Dome in Tampa, each of which bodes well for what could be Notre Dame's best basketball team of the last 30 years.

  1. The Irish have won three consecutive conference road games – a first at the program since Mike Brey's initial season of 2001.
  2. Notre Dame has won seven consecutive league games – also a first since 2001 when the Irish won eight straight over Big East foes.
  3. Sophomore backup center Jack Cooley hit his 15th consecutive field goal without a miss – hitting 9 of his first 9 before missing a baseline jump shot late in the contest.

The Irish annihilated intermittently dangerous South Florida today, 78-55, the game decided early with a 22-0 run effectively ending the contest before the 11:00 mark of the opening stanza.

Cooley led six Irish scorers in double digits, finishing with 18 points and hitting his first nine shots. That following a 5-5 effort vs. Louisville on Wednesday, and after he'd hit his last of two shots vs. Rutgers last Sunday.

Of Cooley's 15 consecutive made buckets, nine were earned by his own offensive rebound.

"Phenomenal. It's something that's been coming," Brey said of Cooley's improvement of late. "For Jack, doing it every day is something that we've talked to him about. He gives us a great lift; his teammates are very confident in him, and it comes at a good time for him to be doing this now."

Cooley, who missed his last shot of the contest to end the streak at 15, felt he'd have a chance at extended minutes vs. the bigger lineup of the Bulls.

"I haven't scored that much this year. To finally get out there and get some buckets, that was huge for my confidence."

Joining Cooley in the evisceration of the normally scrappy Bulls was senior forward Carleton Scott, who posted his third double-double over a seven-game span since returning from an early January hamstring injury. Scott finished with 13 points (all in the first half) and 11 boards while classmate Scott Martin totaled 10 with 7 boards and 3 weak side blocked shots.

Tim Abromaitis netted 12, Tyrone Nash 10, and Ben Hansbrough added 12 points and 8 assists despite spending the bulk of the first half on the bench due to early foul trouble.

Freshman point guard Eric Atkins finished with 7 assists vs. 1 turnover in 17 minutes of relief.

"Eric and I are always talking and communicating, even on the bench," Cooley said of his teammate that set him up for a pair of early layups. "He's going to turn out to be something special for Notre Dame."

Strategically speaking

Favored by just six entering the contest, No. 7 Notre Dame made short work of the bricklaying Bulls, using a sagging man-to-man defense that allowed outside shots in an effort to keep the massive frontcourt of the hosts at bay.

The Bulls responded with an awful 6-30 first-half shooting effort while hitting just 14 of 57 shots not attempted by backup shooting guard Shawn Noriega over the course of the contest. Noriega kept the Bulls from a 40 or 50-point home defeat with 23 points on just 12 shots including a 6-10 effort from beyond the arc.

The Irish, conversely, hit better than 55 percent of their shots including a 7-17 mark from long range. Notre Dame matched their hosts on the glass (37 apiece) while dishing out 23 assists to offset 13 turnovers on the afternoon.

Brey's squad assisted on 13 of their first 15 field goals en route to a 41-17 halftime lead and produced 23 assists on 34 buckets overall.

"I thought we played the way we practiced yesterday. We really came down here focused, we wanted to win another road game, and I was really proud of how our veteran leadership got us ready to go early," said Brey post-game.

The win kept the vastly improved (and defensively conscious) Irish in sole possession of second-place in league action with the conference's top dog, Pittsburgh, traveling to the nation's 12th-ranked team, Villanova, tonight.

Notre Dame has defeated the league's current No. 1, No. 3 and No. 4, No. 6 and No. 7 teams, with Villanova (No. 5) on tap at the end of the month. Naturally, NCAA seeding questions have begun to filter into the team's post-game Q&A.

"It would be great to go on a bus ride and our fans would be really ready because that's right around St. Patrick's Day last time I checked," Brey said of a possible high seed and first-round appearance in Chicago.

Notre Dame (21-4/10-3) will begin this week no lower than No. 7 in either poll with the possibility for upward mobility depending on the weekend's games.

Their next game is Saturday, February 19 at West Virginia (6-5). The Irish haven't won in Morgantown since 2005 (two meetings) and are just 1-3 in their last four vs. the Mountaineers including a two-point Big East semi-finals loss last March. Mountaineers head coach Bob Huggins holds a 3-2 edge over Brey and the Irish since taking over at his alma mater in 2007.


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