Faced with a nine-point deficit with 9:53 left Saturday against winless Coppin State, Notre Dame’s T.J. Gibbs knew his team needed a wake-up call — from its defense.
“We knew we had to do it on the defensive end,” the 6-foot-3 junior Gibbs said after scoring 15 points to lead three players in double figures as the cold-shooting Irish rallied for a 63-56 victory over the Eagles. “It wasn’t about our offense at that point. We know our offense is going to come.”
Notre Dame (10-3) survived a 28-percent shooting effort (9 of 32) in the second half by holding Coppin State (0-15) to just two buckets in its last 10 attempts after the visitors from Baltimore took a 47-38 lead. The Irish also forced four of the Eagles’ 14 turnovers and finished the game on a 25-9 run.
“I thought T.J. handled the leadership well as we finished the game,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. Gibbs also had five assists in 33 minutes.
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Junior John Mooney added 14 points and eight rebounds and Dane Goodwin had 13 points as Notre Dame concluded their nonconference schedule. Notre Dame opens Atlantic Coast Conference play January 1 at No. 10 Virginia Tech. Junior center Juwan Dunham had six points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots.
“They made a run to start the second half,” Mooney said. “We didn’t come out energized or focused in that half. T.J. got us together and said we’ve got to defend and scrap it out.”
Senior forward Cedric Council had 12 points and 17 rebounds for Juan Dixon’s Eagles (0-15), who have played the second toughest nonconference schedule of the season. Dejuan Clayton led Coppin State with 15 points.
“We’re extremely thrilled with that performance,” Dixon said. “We just came up a little short. I thought we defended really well on both ends of the floor.”
Coppin State outshot Notre Dame 36-34 percent for the game and outrebounded the Irish 48-37. But Notre Dame finished with just six turnovers, only one in the final 20 minutes.
Notre Dame broke out to a 25-13 lead on Mooney’s slam with 7:41 to play before Dixon called the second of his three timeouts in the first half. Whatever he said got through as the Eagles, who led briefly early, closed on a 14-4 run and trailed just 29-27 at halftime.
Notre Dame, which had the lead for 18:10, finished the first half hitting just one field goal — Gibbs’ close-in jumper with 35 seconds remaining — in six attempts and committed four turnovers.
Durham had his fifth block in the first minute of the second half. But the Eagles started with a 7-2 run with Lamar Morgan and Clayton hitting 3-pointers to take a 34-31 into the media break at 15:41 as the Irish made just one of eight shots.
Goodwin’s 3-pointer tied it when play resumed, but the Eagles used a 6-0 run in 1:09 to grab a 42-36 lead when Brey called timeout at 12:53. Clayton gave Coppin State a 44-36 lead after play resumed. Council’s 3-pointer with 9:53 put Coppin State up 47-38 and the Irish seemed to be in trouble.
But Notre Dame responded with a 21-4 run in 5:06 that included a flagrant foul by Justin Steers as Mooney tried to dunk. Mooney scored seven in the Irish run, including a 3-pointer, as Notre Dame went up 59-51 with 4:47 left.
Coppin State: The Eagles have not played at their Baltimore home since December 9, when they lost 64-55 to Tennessee State. Saturday’s game was their fourth straight on the road and followed a 75-44 loss at No. 22 Houston December 23. Dixon, who led Maryland to the 2002 NCAA title, had one player in double figures — senior Lamar Morgan averaged 10 points coming into the contest and finished with eight. Coppin State was ranked 352 out of 353 Division I teams in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) that will be used by NCAA to seed the tournament.
“We played very good defense and were aggressive,” Council said. “I think we can build off this.”
Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish, No. 54 in the NET rankings, finish their season with 18 straight Atlantic Coast Conference contests. They played Saturday without two players with season-ending injuries – senior tri-captain Rex Pflueger (torn knee ligament) and freshman Robby Carmody (torn labrum). With December graduate Elijah Burns taking his eligibility to Siena, Brey had 10 players dressed to play, although freshman Chris Doherty is expected to be redshirted.
“Every game matters in the ACC,” Gibbs said. “We have to go out and have our best game every game. We can’t have mental lapses like we did today. Today we definitely learned a lesson that we really need going into the ACC.”
ON TO THE ACC
Mooney knows the Irish will need to shoot better against their ACC competition. He and Gibbs were a combined 4-of-30 in the game.
“Nonconference is over,” Mooney said. “For the most part, I think we’re getting better and we’ll only get better as we continue to play in the ACC. We’re a confident group and ready for the challenge.”
The Irish got 21 points from their freshmen — Goodwin (13), Nate Laszewski (6) and starting point guard Prentiss Hubb (2). Goodwin hit 4-of-7 shots, including 2-of-4 from 3-point territory, while finishing with nine second-half points.
Coppin State: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference opener against visiting Savannah State next Saturday.
Notre Dame: ACC opener at No. 10 Virginia Tech Tuesday.