PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP)—Notre Dame secured a first-round bye for the Big East tournament before it faced Rutgers on Saturday. That didn’t diminish the significance of the game for Irish coach Mike Brey.
Colin Falls scored 22 points and No. 22 Notre Dame beat Rutgers 73-66 for its fifth straight win.
“I think it was important to win today,” Brey said. “The bye was taken care of even before the game started, but the guys never really cared about that. They wanted to handle their own business.
“We actually talked about this as being the first round of the tournament. I said let’s look at this as a play-in game, to give us some momentum heading into New York.”
Notre Dame (23-6, 11-5), which clinched a first-round bye in the conference tourney when Syracuse lost earlier in the day, can grab the third seed if Louisville loses to Seton Hall on Sunday. The Irish have won five straight to earn their most regular-season wins in seven years under Brey.
Wherever they end up, the Irish have far exceeded their preseason pick of 11th place.
“We were at media day picked 11th, and nobody came to our table,” Brey said. “But, the thing about our league, Marquette last year, from the 12th spot in the preseason poll, stole the fourth seed. I used that as an example for our guys.
“I think our kids were very hungry and felt they should be good. It was a great atmosphere to teach and motivate in, when you’re 11th in the preseason poll and maybe you’re an NIT team, you really have everybody’s attention on a daily basis through October and November, which were key times for us.”
Falls said Notre Dame never used the pick as motivation.
“We really didn’t worry about that,” said the senior guard, who hit five 3-pointers. “It was a one-day-at-a-time type thing. We had a big week early when we beat Maryland and Alabama, we got confidence from that and that confidence stayed with us throughout the year.”
Rutgers (10-19, 3-13), which missed qualifying for the Big East tournament for the fourth time in seven years, lost 12 of its final 14 games in Fred Hill’s first season as coach.
“It was a very, very rewarding year,” said Hill, who spent the previous 25 years as an assistant. “Our focus and our goal, was coming out, getting better, work hard, play with passion and pride. We talked about finishing the way we started, to come out and lay it all on the line and I’m very proud of how the guys handled that. I think you saw it today.”
Russell Carter had 17 points for the Irish, Rob Kurz added 13 points and six rebounds, Luke Harangody had 10 points and seven rebounds.
Playing the final game of his collegiate career, Rutgers’ Adrian Hill had 16 points and 18 rebounds. Marquis Webb added 13 points in his finale, and Courtney Nelson had 12.
Notre Dame scored the first six points and led for the entire game. Behind the 3-point shooting of Falls, the Irish led 35-26 at halftime.
“It truly is (Falls’) team,” Brey said. “And he is flat out driving us.”
Notre Dame equaled its largest lead at 44-31 2 minutes into the second half, and never let Rutgers get closer than four the rest of the way. The Scarlet Knights cut a 57-49 deficit to 62-57, but missed three straight chances to get closer with a missed shot and two turnovers.
Carter’s slam started the Irish on a 6-2 surge that opened a nine-point lead with 2:09 left, and Notre Dame maintained control before turning its attention to the postseason.
“I think we’ll be a little more re-energized for the Big East tournament,” Falls said. “As much as this was a big game to play for a bye, playing in Madison Square Garden in the Big East tournament is like a dream. So I think we’ll be energized, we just have to stay focused and execute.”