Behind a balanced attack and almost 59 percent shooting from the field, the Irish sailed past the Scarlet Knights for a 90-63 victory at the Joyce Center. It ended a misery-filled five game losing streak for Notre Dame and helped them improve to 2-8 in conference play and 11-10 on the season. The skid had been the longest since the Irish joined the league in 1995.
"We needed to go into that locker room and smile," Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said after the win. "After you go through what we've been through, you need to go into the locker room and smile and pat each other on the back a bit. That's as good a therapy as anything."
The contest was going along as usual for Notre Dame. Rutgers had pulled to 26-24 late in the first half on a basket by Rutgers' Quincy Douby. But a 25-6 Irish run pushed a two-point lead into a 21-point advantage to seal the deal midway through the second half. A 38-26 halftime lead turned into 51-30 after a Colin Falls three-pointer, seven straight points from Torin Francis (including two dunks) and a long distance bomb from the ever-improving Russell Carter. The Scarlet Knights, playing without three of their top players while a fourth got hurt in the ballgame, never seriously threatened again as they fell to 3-7 in the Big East and 13-10 overall. Douby, the Big East leader in scoring, tried to pick up the slack even more and scored 27 points but shot just 9-of-25, including 1-of-9 from three-point range.
"We played a game down three starters and without our sixth man," Rutgers head coach Gary Waters said. "Without your second, third and fourth leading scorers, it's just hard to play. We were at a point once where we had three walk-ons on the court. When you have that, it's real hard."
The Irish dominated in the paint, outscoring Rutgers 40-24 down low. Notre Dame was helped when the Scarlet Knight's starting center, Byron Joynes, left the game early in the first half with an injury. Francis was a main reason behind the force, picking up a big confidence booster with 21 points. The senior big man had been almost non-existent on the offensive end, combining for just nine total points on 4-of-16 shooting in losses to West Virginia and Louisville. But Francis was money down low, hitting 8-of-12 from the field. The 12 shots were the most since the Syracuse contest seven games ago. Rick Cornett came off the bench to provide a big boost with 14 points, a season-high for the senior who has struggled this year to get into the playing rotation. Brey had a talk with the two senior big men after the Louisville loss and they responded in big fashion.
"I told them I need more of them than ever before," Brey said about the discussion. "The clock is ticking. I didn't want them to look back. I told them that I was going to play them together and I need you to deliver. I thought they were real good. It certainly gives us a physical presence."
"That was one of our keys," Francis said of getting the ball into the paint. "We wanted to pound it down low. The guards kept giving it to me and Rick and we kept scoring. They trusted us. That was one of the keys and we capitalized on it."
Carter once again kept up his high-level of athletic play. The sophomore swing man, coming off a 24-point performance against Louisville, scored 17 points on Wednesday night, including four made three-point shots and hauled down a game-high nine rebounds. Quinn, after torching the Cardinals last game for 31 points, had his normally steady performance, netting 16 points and dishing out eight assists.
Notre Dame came out of the gates on fire. The Irish hit their first six shots of the game to help them jump out to a 14-6 lead. Francis had seven points during this stretch and it was a trend in the first half. Notre Dame, primarily a perimeter team, outscored Rutgers 24-14 in the paint the first 20 minutes of action.
When Francis came out of the ball game, Cornett picked up right where teammate left off. The senior big man shredded the Scarlet Knights down low for eight first half points, including two thunderous dunks. The emphasis in the paint led to high percentage shots and in turn Notre Dame shooting 59 percent before intermission. A gritty Rutgers team stuck around with help from Douby's 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting. But a 12-2 run to end the half, capped by a Francis free throw, gave Notre Dame a 38-26 advantage at the intermission. It tied the biggest lead Notre Dame has held at halftime during Big East play.