By Brian Hamilton, Chicago Tribune reporter
12:28 AM EDT, March 14, 2013
NEW YORK — Out came Notre Dame in the ectoplasm green warm-up shirts, complemented with the white and gray camouflage shorts, with the socks and shoes combination that suggested a bad step taken into a knee-deep puddle of shamrock shakes.
If the Irish were to be seen in a different light at the Big East tournament, it would be a fluorescent one. But to make the run to the first-ever championship game appearance in their last-ever appearance, Rutgers needed dispatching, achieved in a white-knuckle grind to a 69-61 victory.
This was a different outfit at Madison Square Garden, for sure, as compared to the Notre Dame team that was teetering in mid-January when it squeaked by the Scarlet Knights on its home floor. And it was different hands that carried them along to a quarterfinal meeting with Marquette on Thursday.
For postseason success, the Irish prioritized scoring from its backcourt of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant and fast starts for All-Big East center Jack Cooley. So, naturally, it was sophomore Pat Connaughton detonating for a season-high 21 points featuring six 3-pointers, several of the surge-deadening variety.
"The one thing about Pat that has been a trait of his, when lights are brightest and stakes are really high, he's really good," Irish coach Mike Brey said.
"I told him, if he turns down a shot, I'm going to get a technical because I'm going to tackle him during the game."
This after senior forward Tom Knight injected energy early and ultimately added 18 points, including four key free throws in the final stages. All while Grant and Cooley scuffled all night to a combined 4-of-16 shooting effort and the Irish had to hold off push after push from Rutgers, fueled by 51.4 percent efficiency after halftime.
"I came into the game wanting to get energy for the team," Knight said. "I'm just going to continue to try to hit the ground running every game."
Notre Dame held Rutgers to 29.6 percent shooting in the first half and led by as many as 16. But the Scarlet Knights sped up the Irish after the halftime break, popping off a 9-0 run, and then it was more or less up to baseball part-timer Connaughton to be the closer.
When Rutgers closed to five, the sophomore drained a 3-pointer. When Notre Dame wobbled and led by just six midway through the second half, Connaughton drained another bomb. And then Connaughton's sixth 3-pointer extended the lead back to 10 with 41/2 minutes left, just enough cushion for the rest of the way.
"It was something that I needed to work on, moving without the ball, getting to open shots so our guards can find me easier, make it easier on myself to get open looks," Connaughton said. "On this team, everybody picks each other up. That's something that helped me keep my confidence to keep shooting."