As good as Cooley was Wednesday with 10 points and three rebounds in 13 minutes during an 89-79 overtime victory over No. 16 Louisville, he knew that really didn’t matter if he wasn’t able to return Saturday with just as solid an effort against South Florida’s big front line.
Cooley was even better.
He scored a career-high 18 points on 9-of-10 from the floor with eight rebounds, a steal and a blocked shot in 16 minutes. That all helped No. 8 Notre Dame roll to a 78-55 victory at the Sun Dome.
"It was huge," Cooley said of building off Wednesday by trying to do more. "Coach (Mike Brey) told me going in that there’s big guys on the other team. When I hear that, I get extremely excited.
"I was all revved up to play."
Prior to the Louisville game, Cooley had scored 22 points with 23 rebounds in 11 conference contests. In his last two league games, Cooley has 28 points and 11 rebounds.
"You’re seeing the developed and understanding and confidence of a young guy believing he’s a really good player with the chance to maybe be a great player," Brey said. "There’s always been flashes of this."
Cooley was the best big man on the floor Saturday. He patiently worked his way through traffic for easy looks. His shot, even a reverse or two, was smooth and soft. His work around the rim helped the Irish score 48 points in the paint and offset USF’s trio of timbers in Augustus Gilchrist, Toarlyn Fitzpatrick and Jarrid Famous. They did get 18 rebounds but combined for only 14 points.
Even Bulls coach Stan Heath didn’t have Cooley’s name highlighted on his team’s scouting report. He knew well of all the Irish veterans. But No. 45? Well….
"I didn’t expect that one," Heath said. "He’s a little bit more imposing in person that he is on film.
"If they’re getting that kind of play out of him, that gives them a different dynamic. He just battled around the glass."
Cooley connected on his first nine shots Saturday. Coupled with his 5-of-5 effort against Louisville and a made basket on his final attempt Super Bowl Sunday against Rutgers, Cooley had hit 15 consecutive baskets before his first miss. That fell five short of the school’s all-time mark of 20 consecutive baskets by John Shumate, but one better than the 14 in a row once made by Austin Carr, the school’s all-time leading scorer.
Cooley’s name mentioned in the same sentence as Carr’s? Are you kidding?
"Awesome," Brey said.
"That really hasn’t hit me yet," Cooley said. "It’s really kind of crazy. But I have been shooting pretty well lately.
"I’ve just got to keep this up."
Something about the sun agrees with this veteran Notre Dame team. The Sunshine State has become a home away from home this season.
With Saturday’s win in Tampa, the Irish are 4-0 in Florida. Back in November, a then-unranked Notre Dame team won three consecutive games up in Orlando to capture the Old Spice Classic championship.