Irish control paint with deep inside presence
NEW YORK — In the first round of the Big East Tournament, the Rutgers men’s basketball team had the luxury of playing a team that did not know its way around the basket.
DePaul was statistically the worst rebounding team in the conference, pulling in an average of 3.9 less rebounds per game than its opponents.
But when the Scarlet Knights met their second round opponent — Notre Dame — the story was vastly different.
The Fighting Irish, who average 4.6 more rebounds per game than their opponents, controlled the paint behind All-Big East First Team selection Jack Cooley.
The inside disruption kept Rutgers at arm’s length in a 69-61 Notre Dame win.
“Inside, [Notre Dame is] so physical,” said senior forward Austin Johnson. “They get their hands up really well, and they’re taught to not foul and use their body.”
Junior forward Wally Judge was the main beneficiary of the Blue Demons’ lack of size Tuesday night, as he went a perfect 9-for-9 from the field — tying a Big East Tournament record for most field goals without a miss. His 20 point, 10 rebound performance was easily his best game as a Knight.
The game was also his first double-double since the Nov. 9 season opener against St. Peters.
But against the Irish, not only did he have to contend with the 6-foot-9, 246-pound Cooley, but also 6-foot-10, 258-pound forward Tom Knight.
And when Cooley and Knight needed a breather, Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey could bring 6-foot-10, 246-pound Garrick Sherman off the bench.
The competition inside quieted Judge, whose performance was a far cry from his career night the previous game.
He ended with two points, one rebound and four fouls.
“In great post play, it’s a foot battle, and then you have to be the one to create contact,” said head coach Mike Rice. “[Judge] just didn’t do that. He just let Cooley and Knight … knock him off balance, and he just didn’t shoot a balanced shot.”
While the Knights kept pace inside thanks to Johnson and sophomore forward Kadeem Jack — they scored 18 and 10 points, respectively — it was not a clear-cut Rutgers advantage as it was the previous contest.
In several of Rutgers’ regular-season losses, the Knights did not lose solely by their opponents’ star player.
Often times, it was the attention paid to the most well-known player that opened the door for his teammate to step up.
Louisville’s Wayne Blackshear dropped 19 points against Rutgers, while DePaul’s Worrel Clahar scored 19 — nearly triple his season average — in the teams’ Feb 16 meeting.
Against the Irish, a similar story emerged.
In the second half, the Knights committed themselves to limiting Notre Dame’s inside scoring.
That left open spots around the perimeter, and the Irish found them.
“We have a team that can really pass the ball, and we have guards that can find [shooters],” said Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey. “We find the guy that’s open.”
The Irish took advantage, especially guard Pat Connaughton.
Connaughton, who entered the game with a scoring average of 8.4 points per game, just had to wait on the 3-point line.
He ended the game a season-high 21 points on 7-for-10 shooting, with all but one of his field goals coming from beyond the arc.
“Pat has been a guy that we’ve found [for open shots] throughout the year,” Brey said. “I think tonight he really cashed in on it.”
Rutgers’ season is potentially not over. The Knights may still accept a bid to a postseason tournament, a decision Rice has not yet made.
“Some of the secondary tournaments have called and gauged our interest,” Rice said. “And that’s something we’ll look at as a program.”
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