SOUTH BEND – Future Notre Dame opponents take note: If you try to rough up Jack Cooley early, you might just wake a sleeping giant.
The 6-foot-9 Irish forward had 24 points and 15 rebounds, both season highs, leading No. 22 Notre Dame to an 89-67 victory over Niagara on Friday night.
I just wanted to go out there and be physical, and I got a little upset at the beginning of the game, so that fueled me to play a little harder, said Cooley, who had 20 points and 10 rebounds in the first half. It was just the way they were playing me and the way our guards were getting me the ball, it was really helpful.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Cooley might be the best offensive rebounder in the nation.
It’s just his will to go after that thing, Brey said. And he’s very underrated as an athlete. He’s quick off his feet. His reach is long. Certainly he has great strength. And he has great hands. When he gets near it, it’s usually his.
Niagara (5-7) committed 11 fouls in the first half, and the Irish (12-1) took advantage, hitting 12 of 14 (86 percent) free throws. Cooley made half of those and was perfect from the stripe.
The Irish got rolling as the game wore on, shooting a season-high 62 percent in their 10th consecutive victory. They put the game away with a 23-7 run during a 7-minute span midway through the second half, extending their lead to 20.
Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said he couldn’t find any weaknesses when watching Notre Dame on tape.
They’re solid, they’re selfless, obviously they’re very talented, Mihalich said. They have good balance. They have perimeter guys, they have the big guy. I’ll tell you what, they’re going to be a tough out.
Antoine Mason led the Purple Eagles with 17 points.
It was Cooley’s eighth double-double in his last 10 games.
A series of plays in the first half epitomized the night. Cooley’s easy putback off a missed three-point attempt from the corner by Eric Atkins gave the Irish a 36-26 lead with 3:09 to play. The next time down the floor, Cooley blocked a shot, grabbed the loose ball and then drew a frustration foul from Mason.
Cooley sank both double-bonus free throws, putting the Irish up 12.
Cooley, whose minutes were limited, fell three points and three rebounds shy of his career highs.
Freshman forward Cameron Biedscheid had 15 points for Notre Dame, shooting 4 of 4 from three-point range.
The winning streak is the longest for the Irish since a 10-game run four years ago.