Leading 35-31 early in the second half, Notre Dame used a 16-5 run to pull ahead of their aggressive visitors, 51-36 near the 10-minute mark. From there, the Big East's most improved player sealed the deal for the now second-place Fighting Irish.
Cooley scored eight of his Big East career-high 22 points down the stretch, but it was his career-best 18 rebounds that secured the host's seventh straight victory. The Irish last lost exactly a month ago, 65-58 to the Scarlet Knights in New Jersey.
"We really challenged our group to do a better job defending them this time than in New Jersey," offered Irish head coach Mike Brey. "And I'm really pleased with the end result. I thought our defense was fabulous and that was the key. We could not guard them a month ago."
Rutgers overwhelmed Notre Dame with its quickness and defensive intensity in a 65-58 victory in Piscataway on January 15. The Scarlet Knights limited the Irish to a 7 for 20 shooting effort from long range and 13 assists with 11 turnovers that evening. Notre Dame recorded 18 assists on 22 field goals in Wednesday's win, hitting 7 of 16 from the arc and more important, 24 of 32 from the foul line in the rematch.
"It was a game where we were going to get to the line, they're very physical," Brey noted. "We got to the bonus quick and we feel it's a good weapon for us, but I just thought we did a great job (defensively). They have so many dribble screens and ball exchanges between small guards that are really quick and for the most part we really stayed in front."
Senior forward Dane Miller led the Scarlet Knights with 10 points and 12 rebounds, his fourth double-double of the conference season and fifth overall this year.
Rutgers committed 26 fouls, first putting the Irish in bonus free throws at the 13:33 mark of the first half, and into the double bonus with 7:29 remaining in the opening stanza. Notre Dame received two foul shots for every Rutgers foul for the final nine minutes of the game as well.
"I still liked our fight in the first half," said Scarlet Knights head coach Mike Rice. "We gave them too many points off of the free throw line. We held them to 29 percent. [That's a] pretty good half for us. Second half we were just manhandled and the response that we had was a very immature, childish response where there was not a whole lot of fight in our huddle and on the floor."
Aiding Miller offensively was Rutgers freshman guard Eli Carter with 10 points, though on just eight shots in 24 foul-plagued minutes. No other Scarlet Knights competitor hit double digits during a 39 percent shooting effort that included 11 misses on 14 three-point attempts.
What a GrindBoth teams struggled to score early with Notre Dame failing to connect on its first field goal until the 14:12 mark. They nonetheless led 11-3 seven minutes into the contest. No Irish player had more than one bucket with 3:20 remaining in the opening half but the hosts led 33-28 at intermission.
Rutgers' defense held the Irish without a two-point bucket for the opening 14 minutes before Cooley broke through with a layup to give the Irish a 23-15 lead.
"We like throwing it in to him," said Brey of the recent trend that features Cooley as an offensive focal point. "Their speed bothered him at first. They got underneath him. But he does a good job of playing off (drives). He's the go-to-guy when he gets offensive rebounds…I think our perimeter guys do a great job of finding him. We're throwing it over the top and finding angles, because if you get it near him, he's going to catch it."
Notre Dame connected on just two field goals inside the arc during the first half, scoring the remainder of its 33 points on six three-point buckets and 11 free throws.
"The last eight minutes I didn't say much. Eric Atkins was running that thing tonight," said Brey of his sophomore captain. "He ran the whole gym."
The Scarlet Knights suffered their fourth straight loss to fall to 4-9 in league play, 12-14 overall.
"Notre Dame is very good. They are so disciplined. They play with such a purpose," Rice offered. "Our response and lack of purpose in the second half was the most disappointing, and someone not stepping up. It is a quiet huddle. You need someone to step up that is sick of what is taking place on the floor. Right now we do not have that. Right now we have people putting their heads down and bad body language.
"It is a tough league," he continued. "You chose this league. You chose to come play as a freshman, and so how will you respond right now? It looks like we have a glass jaw right now. We have to respond better."
Notre Dame improved to an unlikely 18-8 and 10-3 mark in conference play, tied for second in the Big East.
The Irish travel to Philadelphia to take on Villanova (11-14/4-9) Saturday night. Tip-off is set for 9 p.m. on ESPNU. Rutgers returns home for a Saturday afternoon battle with #2 Syracuse (26-1/13-1), 1:00 on ESPN.