SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame is hoping its stellar defense and rebounding can lead it to a Big East title.
The 25th-ranked Irish once again dominated on the boards and held their opponent to a low shooting percentage in a 62-41 win Sunday over Cincinnati.
“I thought we did a great job staying in front of people who wanted to beat us off the dribble, and we did a great job keeping it to one-and-done,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. “Maybe we’re finding our identity here on that defensive end of the floor and rebounding the basketball.”
Notre Dame’s conference title hopes looked slim a month ago when team captain Scott Martin went out with a knee injury. But in his absence the team has gone 7-2, trailing conference leader Georgetown by two games, with tough road games remaining against Marquette and Louisville, both of whom are tied for second place.
“We’re in the middle of this thing, and let’s keep going,” Brey said.
The Irish (22-6, 10-5) had four players score in double figures. Jerian Grant led them with 13 points, followed by Tom Knight with 12, and Jack Cooley and Eric Atkins with 11.
Grant shot just 2-of-9 from the field but was perfect from the free-throw line, hitting a season-high nine from the stripe.
Unlike their last game against Pittsburgh, when they managed only one field goal over the first 9 minutes, the Irish started hot, hitting their first four attempts. Cincinnati, by contrast, converted just 3 of their first 15 shots, and finished the first half shooting 7-of-25, or 28 percent.
The Bearcats (19-9, 7-8) weren’t much more accurate in the second half, finishing the game at 32 percent shooting.
Notre Dame on Feb. 18 held No. 20 Pittsburgh to 35 percent from the field and outrebounded the Panthers 40-25 to key a 51-42 road win.
On Sunday Pat Connaughton’s 3 from the corner, falling through the net just two seconds before the first-half buzzer, gave the Irish a 29-15 lead at the break.
Notre Dame scored the first five points of the second half, off a fastbreak layup by Atkins and a 3 by the point guard, stretching their lead to 19, the largest of the game up to that point. That prompted another timeout by Cronin, and the Bearcats seemed poised for a rally. Coming out of the timeout, they reeled off a 9-0 run over a nearly four-minute span, including two layups and free throw by Parker, and reduced the lead to 11, at 39-28.
But the Irish regained control with a 3 by freshman Cameron Biedscheid, launching into a 11-4 run punctuated by a two-handed flush by Cooley off an Atkins feed, and increasing their lead back to 18 at 50-32.
JaQuon Parker led Cincinnati with 12 points.
“We got beat, beat real bad,” Parker said. “We made a nice little run in the second half, but started giving up threes.”
Notre Dame often double-teamed guard Sean Kilpatrick, who was averaging 18 points per game, holding him to just six points.
“The important thing for us was running him off the three-point line,” Grant said. “About 70 percent of his shots are three’s, so we forced him into tough two’s in order to stop him.”
Notre Dame got solid play from all four of their bigs, dominating Cincinnati on the boards. They outrebounded the Bearcats 43-27, often kicking the ball back out to their guards to set up new plays.
Irish freshman Zach Auguste came off the bench to grab nine rebounds, his season high.
With the win, Notre Dame became the first team in program history to win at least 10 Big East games four years in a row.
“It’s something we really hang our hat on,” Brey said. “That gets you an NCAA tournament bid. We’re proud of that.”