TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—Notre Dame is off to its best start in 30 years and gaining confidence with every victory.
The eighth-ranked Fighting Irish won their seventh straight game on Saturday, routing struggling South Florida 78-55 with a balanced scoring attack led by Jack Cooley’s career-high 18 points.
Overmatched opponent or not, coach Mike Brey was impressed with his team’s effort coming off an overtime win over No. 16 Louisville that kept Notre Dame (21-4, 10-3) alone in second place in the Big East behind No. 4 Pittsburgh.
The strong start is the program’s best since the 1980-81 season. The Irish can match their best-ever record through 14 conference games (11-3 in 2000-01) by winning at No. 25 West Virginia next Saturday.
“This week got us confidence. The Louisville game was a great win,” said Brey, who coached his 500th career game, improving to 331-169 overall in stints at Delaware and Notre Dame.
“It makes you believe more. You have a bounce in your step more, even if it’s February,” Brey added. “I think right now our energy level is very good. The vibe around our group, I love. And we’re in the mix and chasing down a regular-season title. It’s a realistic thing for us down the stretch.”
Cooley came off the bench during an early 22-0 run and made his first nine shots—giving him a stretch of 14 consecutive field goals over two games— before missing a 15-footer in the closing minutes.
The 6-foot-9 sophomore entered averaging 3.8 points per game for a veteran-laden team that starts four seniors and a graduate student. But he was 5 for 5 for 10 points in 13 minutes against Louisville and took up where he left off in that performance.
“I think you’re seeing the development and understanding and the confidence of a young guy believing he’s a really good player with a chance to, maybe, be a great player one day,” Brey said. “There’s always been flashes of this, especially in practice.”
Carleton Scott scored 13 points and Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis had 12 apiece for Notre Dame, which had six players score in double figures.
Shaun Noriega led South Florida (8-18, 2-11) with a career-best 23 points.
“We got off to a bad start, and they jumped all over us,” USF coach Stan Heath said. We didn’t have any answers to slow them down.”
Notre Dame’s seven-game conference winning streak is its longest in Big East regular-season play since the Irish won their last five of 2006-07 and the first two league games the following season. It’s the team’s best stretch within the same season since 2000-01, when the Irish won eight straight Big East games.
“They play the right way. They play together. They share the ball. They keep the game simple, easy and that’s why they’re No. 8 in the country and the second-best team in our league right now,” said Heath, whose team fell to 0-8 against ranked teams this season.
Nevertheless, Heath was puzzled by his team’s performance. Despite being underdogs most nights in the Big East, the Bulls generally find ways to stay in games before fading late.
“There’s just no excuse. … I’m in the locker room trying to figure out are we scared of them or are just not tough enough,” Heath said. “Either one is not good.”
The loss was the 13th in 15 games for the Bulls, who blew a 16-point second-half lead in falling 59-58 to Marquette last Wednesday. They really were never in this one, missing 11 of their first 12 shots and shooting 20 percent in the opening half—30.4 percent for the game.
Scott, Abromaitis and Scott Martin hit 3-pointers during the first-half surge that carried Notre Dame to a 24-3 lead. Much of the damage was inflicted after Hansbrough went to the bench with two fouls, with Cooley making three layups to help take up the slack for the absence of the Big East’s third-leading scorer.
The Irish led 41-17 at halftime, with Hansbrough only having two points on 1-for-2 shooting. The senior averaged 24.2 points over the previous five games and played long enough in the second half to finish 5 of 10 from the field with eight assists and two steals.
Martin and Tyrone Nash each scored 10 points for Notre Dame. Since consecutive lopsided road losses to Marquette and St. John’s in early January, the Fighting Irish have put together their first three-game conference road winning streak since 2000-01.