By DOUG GRIFFITHS
ISL Assistant Editor
INDIANAPOLIS ” It was obvious from the outset of the Notre Dame-Purdue game which was the veteran team and which one was young, inexperienced and still learning how to play.
The Irish started a graduate student, a senior and two other juniors, while the Boilermakers’ starting lineup featured one senior, a junior, sophomore and two true freshmen.
Notre Dame’s veteran leadership showed as the Irish forced nine first-half turnovers that led to 11 Notre Dame points and Purdue shot 40.7 percent from the floor compared to the Irish’s 57.1 percent in the opening stanza. As a result, No. 22 Notre Dame led 39-31 at halftime and went on to win its seventh game in a row with an 81-68 win in the second annual Crossroads Classic.
“We’re an older team and I thought it was men kind of playing like men,” said Irish coach Mike Brey, whose team improved to 9-1 on the season .
The game was far from the classic that the doubleheader’s opening tilt was that saw Butler shock top-ranked Indiana, 88-86, in overtime.
Purdue (4-6 overall) started the second half by missing 14 of its first 15 shots as Notre Dame got out to a 54-33 lead, and for all practical purposes the game was over.
While the Boilermakers were ice cold from the floor, the Irish sizzled thanks to their offensive efficiency.
“Our offensive efficiency was excellent again,” Brey said. “These guys love playing together.”
It was Notre Dame’s efficiency in the half court that was so impressive. Because of their execution, the Irish were able to get layup after layup against a Purdue program that traditionally is known for its tenacious man-to-man defense.
“They do play beautifully together,” said Brey about his veteran crew. “How they move the ball, cut and share it.
“We knew they were going to pressure us and we talked about going without it and cutting and I thought we did that.”
Brey also commended his team’s defensive play, particularly guard Pat Connaughton., who drew the assignment of guarding sharpshooter D.J. Byrd.
“Connaughton was fabulous guarding Byrd and gave us some scoring,” said Brey, who admitted Connaughton is becoming his team’s defensive stopper on the perimeter.
“We played really well on defense,” Irish big man Jack Cooley said. “They only had two points in the second half for a while. We were really proud of the way we played defense as a team.”
Cooley and Connaughton were two of four Notre Dame players who scored in double figures. Cooley had team-high honors with 18 points, while Connaughton chipped in 16 points, Atkins had 17 and Garrick Sherman added 11 points off the bench. This was Sherman’s first game action since Nov. 29 against Kentucky. He didn’t play against Brown a week ago.
Now, it seems as though the Irish offense is catching up to the defense.
“We are playing very well, especially on the offensive end,” Cooley said. “Our defense was good at the beginning of the year, and now our offense is catching up to where our defense was. We are flowing very well, and we’re just playing really well on offense. No one is being selfish, and that is great to see.”
“I love how we’ve had a defensive identity from the beginning of the season,” Brey said. “Our offensive identity has just kicked in, but we can still get better.”
Notre Dame can’t get much better at the free throw line than it was down the stretch.
Purdue tried to mount a great comeback, mainly due to the unconscious play of freshman guard Rapheal Davis, who went off for a game-high 21 points (all in the second half as he hit 8-of-9 shots from the floor), not bad for a player that had scored 29 points the entire season. But Notre Dame hit 16-of-18 free throws in the game’s final 4:35.
“We started hitting our free throws,” Atkins said. “I think that was the biggest thing at that point when they were coming back. We knew they were going to foul us a lot, and I think we did a good job down the stretch hitting our free throws.”
“I turned to one of our assistants and said, ‘Boy, this group has been in this position a lot,'” said Brey, who watched his team’s 56-33 lead with 10:36 remaining be cut to 58-49. “They have iced games away at the line. They did it like a group that has done it a lot.”
Notre Dame finished the game 24-of-33 from the foul line and shot 49.1 percent from the floor (26-of-53).
Other than taking advantage of its trips to the charity stripe, the Irish also capitalized on 15 Purdue turnovers, turning them into 18 points.
“It’s frustrating when you don’t take care of the basketball because it’s an element of the game that you can control,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said.
“That’s a team (Notre Dame) that is a good half-court defensive team, but they don’t come out and pressure you, so we weren’t getting pressured but we were still throwing it to them.”
Brey’s Irish won’t have much time to enjoy their latest victory. On Monday they’ll be back at it as IPFW comes to town for a 7 p.m. tip at Purcell Pavilion, a game that will televised by ESPNU.
Barring something unforeseen, Notre Dame will be 12-1 entering BIG EAST play Jan. 5.
NOTRE DAME NUGGETS
– Brey was called for his first technical foul of the season in the first half.
– Brey said Notre Dame sold out of its 4,000 allotted tickets for the event, which pleased him to say the least.
– The Irish now lead their series against Purdue 21-20.
– Next season Notre Dame will play Indiana, while Butler will face Purdue. The four schools have agreed to continue the event for at the very least another two years.