NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Senior night began like a night to forget, but Jack Cooley's final home game ended with a 66-40 Notre Dame win over St. John's after a 40-minute roller coaster ride at Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center.
Points were tough to come by in the early going. The two teams combined to shoot 3 for 14 (21%) over the first five minutes, and Notre Dame (23-7, 11-6 Big East) would end up hitting a woeful 8 of 29 first half shots (27%) before a second half eruption that saw the Irish outscore St. John's (16-13, 8-9) 44-14.
"Thank God there was a second half," Irish head coach Mike Brey began his postgame comments. "I'm thrilled with how we defended in the second half. We finally got into an offensive rhythm. We were able to get out in transition a little bit and not have to play against their set defense."
Jerian Grant provided most of the first half offense with ND's first two 3s of the half. His first came at the 6:49 mark and the second nearly two minutes later to give the Irish a 19-18 advantage - their first lead in a five minute stretch. Notre Dame was still shooting just 7 for 23 (30%) at that point.
Jack Cooley, who was held scoreless in Saturday's 72-64 loss at Marquette, was blanked in the first half and was looking like he might have lay a senior night goose egg while missing his only two shots of the half.
"You just have to put it behind you," Cooley said of his struggles. "Some of the reasons I didn't play well at the beginning of last year was because I was too worried about my stats and things like that. You just have to go out there and play and it will come as long as you play hard and you won't really have to worry about that."
While the night did not begin as he planned, it ended in typical Cooley fashion. His first bucket came just 30 seconds into the second half and the big man rolled to a 12 point, 13 rebound performance - his 19th double-double of the season and the 32nd of his career.
Cooley has scored in double digits in 27 of 30 games this season, including 15 of 17 in Big East action. He has pulled down 10 or more rebounds 20 times, with 11 of those being Big East games. He looked his physical self over the last 20 minutes - setting two charges, setting a hard screen at half court and also standing his ground in the lane to cause a travel call against the Red Storm.
Cooley's final moment on the Purcell Pavilion floor was spoiled when a fight broke out. Brey had just subbed Zach Auguste for Cooley with 1:46 to play and the Irish up 66-40 when Cameron Biedscheid and Sir'Dominic Pointer became entwined in a fight. Punches were thrown by each player.
"I didn't really see it," Brey said when asked what happened during the fracas. "It's unfortunately that happened. Guys have to defend themselves."
Pointer and Biedscheid were each assessed a technical foul and each was ejected. Both players will have to sit out their teams' season finales this Saturday. For Notre Dame that's a game at Louisville, while St. John's hosts Marquette.
"I didn't get to see any of it actually," St. John's head coach Steve Lavin said of the fight. "I don't know what prompted it or what happened. The referees just said that both players got into a fight and that was why they both got kicked out."
Video replays of the fight were not shown inside the arena, but Pointer reportedly threw the first punch.
"I think Cam just said he was defending himself," Brey said. "He felt it started with the other guy and he defended himself. Under the rule if you do throw a punch you're ejected, but I'm not gonna tell one of my guys to defend himself."
Pointer was escorted out of the building to the St. John's team bus by a police officer after the arena had cleared.
Once the melee was sorted out and both men had left the floor, Auguste was announced and Cooley walked off his home hardwood to a standing ovation for the last time. The Irish purposely took shot clock violations on their next two possessions and then let the final 20 seconds tick off the clock after a St. John's missed shot.
Like Cooley, Pat Connaughton was held scoreless last Saturday at Marquette as well as in the first half against the Red Storm. Connaughton did not end up with the double-double Cooley had, but he did finish with eight points and six rebounds.
"I've been after him a little bit since Marquette," Brey said. "We need more out of that three spot, the two of them, Cam and him."
"He's driving a little bit," Brey continued. "I think this is something that we need to show him - his offensive decisions when he scored and see if we can keep that going Saturday and beyond."
Grant led the Irish with 21 points on 7 of 16 overall shooting, while making 5 of 6 three-pointers. Eric Atkins added 15 points on 6 of 12 shooting with three long range buckets of his own. Grant has scored in double figures in 15 of 17 Big East games this season.
"I thought Jerian hunted and took his shot more aggressively and so did Eric," Brey said of his dynamic backcourt duo. Eric and Jerian have to go ahead and score for us and then play off of you. They don't have to set people up for us all the time."
The Fighting Irish hit 17 of their 25 second half shots (68%) to finish with a 46% (25 of 54) night from the floor that included hitting 8 of 17 (47%) of their three-pointers. St. John's made just 17 of 56 (30%) of their shots on the night and an abysmal 1 of 13 (7%) three-pointers.
Notre Dame's win avenged a 67-63 loss to the Red Storm in New York back on Jan. 15. The Irish are now 21-19 all-time against St. John's, which had won the last three meetings between the two teams. All three of those took place in Madison Square Garden. The Irish are 7-1 in their last eight home games against St. John's.
The win is important as well. Notre Dame can still clinch a double bye at next week's Big East Tournament with a win Saturday at Louisville and a Syracuse loss to Georgetown that same day. Notre Dame and Louisville play at 4 p.m. ET. Syracuse and Georgetown tip-off at noon.
The Irish have won seven straight senior day games. Their last senior day loss was on March 5, 2005 to Pittsburgh. Seniors Mike Broghammer, Joey Brooks and Scott Martin were the other three seniors honored before and after the game.
The Irish senior class needs just two more wins to become Notre Dame's all-time winningest class. The current class has a 95-38 overall record, including 48-23 in Big East play. The 2007-2011 class was 96-42 with a 46-26 Big East mark.