SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Niagara coach Joe Mihalich knows there are no moral victories in college basketball. Still, he hopes his young team learned a few things Friday night in an 89-67 loss to No. 22 Notre Dame.
"I told our team after the game – and I think we're on our way – I told them we need to develop some of the characteristics that that team has," Mihalich said. "Whatever way they need to go to exploit the other team, they find it. They're solid, they're selfless, obviously they're very talented. 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. The 6-foot-3 sophomore came away from the loss impressed by 6-foot-9 Notre Dame forward Jack Cooley and took solace in the notion that he won't see anyone quite like Cooley this season in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play.
"He's a big guy," Mason said. "He had 20 points and 10 rebounds in the first half. We don't have to play anybody like that, thank God."
The Purple Eagles, who hadn't played a team ranked as high as No. 22 since 2000, fell to 12-78 against ranked opponents.
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.
"In the first half everything was flowing good, shots were being made," Mason said. "In the second half, within the first 5 minutes, everything was going good but then they went on that little run and we could never come back."
Cooley had his eighth double-double in his last 10 games. He entered tied for second nationally in that statistic.
"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 finished with 24 points and 15 rebounds, both season highs. "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. Just super hands. When he gets near it, it's usually his."
A series of plays in the first half epitomized the night. Cooley's easy putback off a missed 3-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 by the lopsided margin, 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 3-point range.
The winning streak is the longest for the Irish since a 10-game run four years ago.
Niagara was able to keep the game close for the first 12 minutes, cutting Notre Dame's lead to 25-24 when Mason drove inside and hit a layup as he fell to the court. But Cooley answered with six straight points, making a pair of baskets inside and then two free throws. Pat Connaughton added a 3-pointer to cap the 9-0 run, giving the Irish a 34-24 lead.