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January 22, 2012

Cooley crushes Orange

NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Blood started to ooze from Jack Cooley’s finger, an occupational hazard for the Notre Dame’s omnipresent forward. The junior had just dunked over the Orange front court, cutting his finger on the rim while re-staking Notre Dame to a double-digit lead early in the second half of an eventual 67-58 upset of No. 1 Syracuse.

Cooley tried to get the officials’ attention for an injury timeout, but nobody, wearing a whistle or otherwise, would stop Notre Dame from rolling toward a moment powered by the 6-foot-9, 248-pound bruiser.

“I was actually a little tired after that because I got a little too excited,” Cooley said. “I wanted to get the ref’s attention, because I’m bleeding, but he didn’t stop it.”

Cooley finished with game-highs in points (17) and rebounds (10) against a Fab Melo-less frontline he bossed for 35 minutes. That’s career-high stamina, in a regulation game at least, for a junior who Mike Brey called out before the season for being a five-minute man at best.

“We told Jack early in the week, you’re gonna have to go to work,” said Eric Atkins. “You’re gonna have to go to work down there. And he did. He got offensive rebounds, tipped it back to himself, got and-ones, can’t say enough about Jack tonight.”

Cooley has turned into perhaps Notre Dame’s most indispensible player.

He played like it against the Orange, sending a message on the boards and with his elbows. Notre Dame out-rebounded Syracuse 38-25 and out-flagrant-fouled them 1-0. Cooley picked that up in the second half when he dropped C.J. Fair to the court when the Orange forward tried to physically full court press despite a 45-pound disadvantage.

“Even when he threw the elbow and it went their way, our crowd reacted,” Atkins said. “It’s never good that they get two points, but those guys knew they couldn’t get too close to Jack or they’d get hit with another elbow.”

Teammates credited Cooley’s conditioning for his 35-minute energy. Brey said Notre Dame’s methodical offense against a 2-3 zone let Cooley rest on offense. And an opportunity to knock off a No. 1 team for the first time in a quarter century provided its own oxygen.

“A day like today, it’s against team rules to be tired,” Brey said. “You cannot be tired today in this opportunity.

Cooley benefited from Melo’s absence, the 7-foot, 244-pound center not making the trip to South Bend for undisclosed reasons. That took the beef off the Orange block, no other player coming within 25 pounds of Cooley, who didn’t know about the future lottery pick staying home until warm-ups.

“I was confused why no one told me of all people that Melo wasn’t playing,” Cooley laughed. “Then I got a little excited because I looked at the roster and the next biggest guy was like 6-8, 213. I just started getting really excited when I saw that that.”

Cooley kept that up all game, waving at the packed student section, throwing that elbow, screaming after his dunk that helped keep Syracuse at arm’s length. When the students rushed the court afterward, that’s when Cooley’s energy finally lagged.

“I thought all the work was over, and then they rushed the court,” Cooley said. “That was even more tiring than half the game. The fans were phenomenal today. I’m exhausted.”

He’s earned a break.

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