Feb. 22, 2012; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Jerian Grant (22) dribbles as West Virginia Mountaineers guard Gary Browne (14) defends in the first half at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE
One of the themes for the Irish this season is that it's a transition year, as Notre Dame starts to add a different caliber of athlete. That was on display tonight, as red shirt freshman* Jerian Grant was transcendent, knocking down four threes while getting repeatedly to the rim for dunks and lay-ups on his way to a game-high twenty points. His backcourt mate Eric Atkins was nearly as good, notching thirteen points, eight assists and three steals, combining to turn an early deficit into a slim halftime lead and then one more step into an absolute blowout.
* Or sophomore. Whatever. I know Notre Dame technically doesn't have red-shirts, blah blah blah.
The young backcourt was assisted by the old hands up front, as Jack Cooley and Scott Martin helped dominate down low. Cooley was a beast on defense, coming up short on his usual rebounding numbers (six) but rejecting three West Virginia shot attempts. Martin had one of his finest offensive games in an Irish uniform, hitting a pair of fadeaway jumpers and connecting from deep thrice. Villanova hero Pat Connaughton went scoreless, missing both of his shot attempts, but chipped in with five boards, four assists and two steals. Alex Dragicevich had 8 points off the bench, making a pair of threes.
This is not one of Bob Huggins' better defensive teams (it's around 80th in the KenPom defensive efficency rankings), but the way Notre Dame just skewered them in the second half made this a blast of a game to watch. Things started terribly, with West Virginia getting loads of second-chance points and overwhelming the Irish on the boards, but their early advantage was negated by a group effort on the glass, the Irish winning the final rebounding battle 28-24. The Irish perimeter defense continued to be strong, harassing the visitors into going 1-for-11 from behind the arc and accumulating six steals.
However, as great as the team was tonight, my MVP award of the night goes to the student section, who sang "Country Roads" as the clock wound down to zero. There is joy, then there is the Leprechaun Legion serenading West Virginia - playing their final Big East game in the Joyce Center - with Bob Denver's (and Finnies') finest track.
Notre Dame is now 12-3 and on a record nine-game win streak in Big East play. They finish up league play with a trip to terrible St. John's (although that's a place they generally struggle), at Georgetown and home against Providence. A double-bye is likely. A single bye is almost guaranteed. I know it's cliche to say this now, but this is a team we all would have been surprised to see win four games in conference, and that might be their loss total for the season. Amazing work by Brey and his team, and now it's just a matter of seeing how far this ride will take us.