Depth Was the Key

Pat Connaughton broke out of an extended shooting slump to key Notre Dame's eight-point victory over Rutgers Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.

NEW YORK -- Their stars struggled but Pat Connaughton and Tom Knight picked up the slack for Notre Dame as the Irish held off a game Rutgers squad, 69-61 in the second round of the Big East Tournament Wednesday night.

Connaughton scored a season-high 21 points including a six of eight effort from long range and Knight added career highs in points (18) and rebounds (9) to offset off nights by first team all-Big East center Jack Cooley and second team all-Big East guard Jerian Grant, who combined to miss 12 of 16 shots on the evening.

The Irish raced to a 14-point halftime lead thanks to a strong opening stanza by Knight. The 33-19 margin marked the fourth time in the last six the Notre Dame defense limited its foe to fewer than 20 before intermission.

But Rutgers scored at the halftime buzzer, then produced the first nine points of the second half to draw within seven, 33-26, forcing the Irish to fight for their fifth straight opening game win in Big East Tournament action.

Connaughton continually stymied Rutgers' rallies, hitting crucial three-point shots that stretched Notre Dame leads from five points to eight, 44-36, near the 13:00 minute mark, then from six to nine, 52-43 with under nine minutes to play.

The sophomore swingman wasn't finished dropping daggers on the Scarlet Knights, scoring on a rebound goal to extend to a seven-point lead near the 5:00-minute mark, then connecting from deep to stretch the margin back to 10, 59-49, as the Irish gained control for the stretch run.

Connaughton entered the contest hitting but 7 of his last 41 from long range; 2 of 12 over the last three contests.

After struggling throughout much of the contest, Grant played better late, scoring seven of his 11 points in the final 5:09. Grant added a team-high five assists in 35 minutes.

Senior center Austin Johnson enjoyed a career night for Rutgers, scoring 18 points on a variety of post moves including 15 on 7 of 10 shooting in the second half. Johnson cut Notre Dame leads to five, six, and seven points during the second half but the Irish responded to each threat.

Guard Miles Mack also scored 18 and Kadeem Jack 10 off the bench for the Scarlet Knights.

One night after hitting all nine of his field goal attempts, 6'9" junior forward Wally Judge scored just two points on six shots in 15 frustrating minutes for Rutgers, their season over at 15-16 overall.

Cooley added nine rebounds to Notre Dame's cause while Eric Atkins scored seven, all in the first half.

Notre Dame enjoyed a plus-six advantage on the glass but it was the team's touch from long range that provided the victory, hitting 10 of 17 vs. Rutgers' 4 of 15 performance. The Irish hit just 12 of 36 shots inside the arc.

One night after Rutgers connected on better than 60 percent of their shots, Notre Dame limited head coach Mike Rice's youth-filled squad to a 26 of 62 effort.

Irish head coach Mike Brey enjoyed a combined 10 points and seven rebounds from his three-man bench rotation of Garrick Sherman, Zach Auguste, and Cam Biedscheid -- three crucial components to Notre Dame's final bid for a Big East Championship berth.

The Irish (24-8) advance to face No. 3 seed Marquette, who at 14-4 in league play, shared the regular season title with both Georgetown and Louisville.

Tip-off is scheduled for 9 p.m. Thursday night.


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