(MCT) — SOUTH BEND, Ind. — His arms and torso pretzeled in a heap with Cincinnati players near midcourt, Eric Atkins flicked a toe toward the loose ball. It trickled to Notre Dame teammate Jack Cooley, who then flung it to Tom Knight, who then rattled the stanchion with a dunk.
Once on his feet, Atkins backpedaled, smiled and shook his head. Anything the No. 25 Irish wanted to do in a 62-41 beating of Cincinnati on Sunday, they did, and mostly with a snarly disposition that is uncommon to this program but bubbling to the surface at an ideal time.
Usually, Notre Dame (22-6, 10-5 Big East) cites defense and rebounding as calling cards and you ask for a second form of identification. But here was Cincinnati, shooting 31.5 percent. Here were the Irish, plus-16on the glass against the Big East’s best rebounding club. Here was the least amount of points Notre Dame has allowed in a league game, ever.
“We’re just trying to be tougher than everyone else out there,” Irish forward Tom Knight said.
As the stretch grind funnels into March — a month of middling results for Notre Dame — seeing is relieving. Being tough is how the Irish clawed back at Pittsburgh, it’s how they dismantled Cincinnati, and it’s their only chance at a Big East tournament double-bye or elusive success in the NCAA tournament.
“Maybe we’re finding our identity here on that defensive end of the floor and rebounding,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “When our four big guys are flying around, we should be able to do that.”
The 10th league win effectively assures there will be another NCAA tournament to solve — among current Big East members, teams with 10 league wins have earned NCAA invites 124 of 130 times. Another bracing backcourt effort inspired all of it.
Atkins and Jerian Grant combined for 24 points and 10 assists while strangling Cincinnati’s Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick, who averaged a combined 31 points per game but managed just six, total, on 3-of-15 shooting between them.
“This is a big-time matchup for us,” Atkins said. “We really want to win those types of battles.”
Notre Dame established tone early, goading Cincinnati into missing 12 of its first 15 shots and building a 16-point lead. The Irish’s 11-2 burst answered a rally by the Bearcats (19-9, 7-8) to make it a nine-point game in the second half.
At the end, with the clock running out, Knight grinned and feigned a cut to the rim for an undefended bucket. Request denied, but a bit of a laugher was overdue.
“It’s so difficult to put up 70 every game and win by six,” center Jack Cooley said. “It’s a lot easier to lock in on defense, shut teams down, and take it upon yourself to not let your man score.”