Irish keep rolling, eye Garden
February, 22, 2012
By Matt Fortuna | ESPN.com
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The big, burly Jack Cooley emerged in the paint to deflect the hopeless Jabarie Hinds' shot, Hinds' sixth miss on a Wednesday night that saw him whiff on eight of his nine attempts inside a hellacious Joyce Center. Eric Atkins ended up with the ball and threw ahead to backcourt mate Jerian Grant, who lifted off from outside the paint, going for what his coach would later term "the jugular."
Grant's monster slam attempt from the left side rimmed out toward the Notre Dame bench, just as his momentum was carrying him that way. Five seconds later, alone with the ball in his hands, Grant swished his fourth and final 3 of the night, pausing in front of his bench to take in the celebration of a lead that never stopped growing.
If ever a sequence summed up the Irish's night, the Irish's past month, amidst this historic stretch, it came in that 12-second sequence midway through the second half of a 71-44 rout of West Virginia. Notre Dame has now won nine straight games, a school record in Big East play, and there's no sign of things slowing down.
The Irish's next stop comes Saturday at Madison Square Garden, and a win there over St. John's will clinch a double-bye for the return trip nearly two weeks later for the Big East tournament.
"I think it's a bonus, just to be able to get in there and play a game and then be back," Grant said. "I think we can get a nice rhythm in there, and it will be good for us when the tournament comes."
Grant's 20 points off 8-for-11 shooting (including 4-of-5 from 3) led the attack for the Irish, who had four players in double-figures. They shot better than 61 percent from the floor, breaking open a two-point game at halftime and holding the Mountaineers to just 16 points in the second half.
"I don't know what the school record for misses is," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said, "but I think if I would have left Jabarie Hinds in tonight he would have had it."
Matt Cashore/US PRESSWIRENotre Dame's Jerian Grant scored 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting -- including 4-of-5 from 3-point range -- in a blowout of West Virginia.
Grant, meanwhile, was a catalyst on both ends of the court. He was active on the perimeter, forcing the Mountaineer guards into bad spots, and capitalized on the other end with a pair of fast-break dunks that jarred the leftover tension from a rugged first half.
"Jerian got some nice dunks tonight, they were pretty impressive," forward Scott Martin said. "But I think what's more important than those is his defensive energy, and the way he bothers people. Him and Eric up top, they frustrate people -- I would not want to bring the ball up against those two. They have a very nice chemistry, the way they hand people off, and they have that unspoken little connection there that's paying dividends for us."
Right now that backcourt and so much more has the Irish 12-3 in the Big East, tied for second place and undefeated in the past 32 days since a Jan. 21 upset over then-undefeated Syracuse. They've been rolling since, wrestling one away in Morgantown two weeks ago, completing a school-record 20-point comeback in an overtime win Saturday at Villanova and playing a nearly perfect second half Wednesday to continue this run.
The last Notre Dame team to win eight in a row in Big East play featured current assistants Harold Swanagan and Martin Ingelsby in 2001, Mike Brey's first season as the Irish's head coach.
"He kind of joked about it, about saying you guys can talk smack to those two," Atkins said of Brey.
For now, Brey will talk to his team about playing at the Garden, an obstacle the three-time conference coach of the year has yet to overcome, never reaching the title game and the accompanying Broadway lights that come with it.
A quick turnaround awaits Monday against Georgetown at the Verizon Center, where the Irish, stinging from the loss of leading scorer Tim Abromaitis, fell to 5-4 in a loss to Maryland nearly three months ago.
But that reminder will be put on hold for a few more days.
"We're a lot different than the team that was in D.C. in that building in December," Brey said, stating the obvious. "That's what I'm gonna talk about Sunday."