Fortunate for Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey, the latter was on the side of the hosts. because otherwise Brey's Irish would be mired in a three-game losing skid including two straight in South Bend. Instead, Notre Dame is 3-2 in league play and back in the hunt with a nationally televised Monday night Purcell Pavilion showdown vs. Georgetown on tap.
"I told them, it's going to be hard in this league," said Brey. "And just to remind them -- not that this group doesn't know about hard stuff, but you have to fight them off after turning it over a little bit, missed some free throws, but we have to make some plays to steal a win. I hope its something we can build on."
Wins don't come much more shaky than Saturday night's. The Irish blew a 13-point lead in the final nine minutes; Rutgers in possession with under 10 seconds and down just one looking to steal a win. Notre Dame likewise gave up an eight-point edge with two minutes remaining, committing more turnovers (4) than points scored (3) to close out the contest.
And though the aforementioned Cooley was the standout, it was sixth-year senior Scott Martin who saved the day, earning a charge call vs. Rutgers guard Eli Carter at the rim with just over two seconds remaining.
"He kind of won the game today," joked an incredulous Cooley when Martin was initially absent from the post-game interview room.
Martin was summoned, his late-game heroics and knack for drawing charges now instrumental in two late-game victories in as many seasons.
"After you watch film and scout you see what they like to do," said Martin, packed ice surrounding on his surgically repaired knee. "In that situation, he wants to get to the rim and try to draw the foul. I saw the spot and tried to beat him to it."
Said Cooley of the final play, one debated by game officials, "If he didn't get the charge, I had the block. The ball wasn't going anywhere near the basket. I think it was the right call but it was a bang-bang play. They were discussing if his feet were in the circle, but (Martin) is good at that. He gets one of those every game."
Cooley did what he does every game, or nearly so, recording a 19-point, 10-rebound double-double, his 11th of the 18-game season and 24th in the last two years. He hit 7 of 11 shots in a game where neither team enjoyed consistent offensive flow.
"Its great to see Jack Cooley back in gear and Scott Martin taking that charge -- that's the guy that would make a play like that at the end," said Brey of his recently struggling baseline defenders.
Cooley's block and Martin's charged led to an Irish in-bounds and subsequent pair of free throws by Eric Atkins, two points that extended Notre Dame's lead to 69-66. A Myles Mack desperation three-point shot at the buzzer missed everything.
Can't Shake 'EmThe final three seconds belonged to the Irish but the game's last quarter was all Scarlet Knights.
"We've always known about their perimeter but now their front line is starting to do damage and we couldn't get away from them. I didn't expect to get away from them," said Brey.
"Their zone press gave us some problems. They hit some big shots, some deep threes on us. Credit them. They didn't quit, they kept fighting," said Martin.
So too did the Irish, with a two-man pick-and-roll game by Cooley and Jerian Grant (10 assists) crucial in the second half and the overall efforts of swingman Pat Connaughton aiding Cooley throughout, notably in an 11-point first half in which he did not miss a shot.
"He worked his backside off on (Eli) Carter," added Brey of Connaughton's defensive effort on Rutgers' best player ( "I know Carter got his numbers but he had to work for it. We need Pat to be a key guy both halves. I like that he's driving it. I like that he was making shots for us tonight. He was a confident shot-maker."
Connaughton finished 6 for 8 from the field with 17 points and five rebounds in 34 minutes.
"Its a matter of utilizing both parts of the game," said Connaughton of his outstanding first half and nondescript second. "Not just to stay in rhythm for the three-point shot, but if they're playing you as a shooter, you drive. I didn't do as much of that in the second half but the other guys did. It open them up."
Connaughton split a pair of free throws with 12 seconds left, the miss giving life to Rutgers in a 67-64 game. PReviously, Cooley has missed the front end of a 1-and-1. They were the only misses from the charity stripe in 17 attempts by the Irish.
Nothing came easy.
"I am thrilled," said Brey post-game. "You almost need to win one like that. I thought we really defended well and defended at key times."
They had to because Rutgers kept nipping at their heels.
"We're different. We don't have that young man in the paint so we have to play a little different," said Rutgers head coach Mike Rice of the Scarlet Knight's defensive effort. "I thought our zone was very effective getting out to shooters. It took away their ball screen offense.
"(Notre Dame backup center) Tom Knight hits back-to-back high post turnaround jump shots…they didn't blink either. They found ways when we were on a roll to continue to score some points and every little play counts in the Big East."
So far those plays have added up to a 3-2 start in conference play for Brey's Irish. Three games vs. current top five teams (twice with Louisville; Syracuse) remain, as do dates with Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Marquette, not to mention a rematch with St. John's -- the Red Storm conquered Notre Dame on Tuesday.
Syracuse and Louisville have separated themselves a bit. The rest?
"I think we have 14 teams in the top 100 of the RPI," said Brey of last week's rankings. "Everybody can play at that next level. I think what's good is that will keep our league RPI up and put us in the vicinity of making eight bids, so I think that's a good thing. Other than those two, the rest of us are fighting for our lives.
"That's why a night like tonight, I am thrilled to escape with one."