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DePaul hangs tough, but Notre Dame, Jack Cooley too much

Notre Dame's Jack Cooley reacts after a call goes against DePaul later in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/South Bend Tribune, Greg Swiercz)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Notre Dame coach Mike Brey’s squad has knocked off five ranked teams, yet he worried about the game Saturday against DePaul and its 2-9 Big East record.

‘‘It was an escape game,” Brey said.

That’s exactly how Notre Dame’s 84-76 victory played out. There were 13 lead changes and 12 ties, the last coming with 6:38 left. But when Donnavan Kirk was called for a foul, Blue Demons coach Oliver Purnell showed his displeasure and was whistled for a technical. DePaul never led again.

“We battled back after that [to 78-75 with 1:38 left], but [the technical] didn’t help,” he said.

More damaging, though, was 6-9 Irish forward Jack Cooley, who had 22 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks and an assist.

“He loves to play physically,” Brey said. “When he took that late charge [with one minute left, negating a basket by Brandon Young], I saw Young go flying, and that happens because he’s strong.”

Cooley denied shots inside, yet the Demons (11-13, 2-10) were effective from the field early, hitting three-point shots that helped them lead by seven in the first half before the Irish (17-8, 9-3) rallied to tie it at 34 at halftime.

The Demons trailed by seven in the second half before tying it at 68.

“Every time we thought we had battled through, they came back,” Brey said. “We were very human at times, and for us to figure it out and win, I’m really proud of them.”

Purnell didn’t start Young, who had played poorly in the last two games. But he responded in his 29 minutes off the bench, scoring 13 points with three assists and three rebounds.

“The last few games I wasn’t playing aggressively,” Young said. “I think I was being selfish and worrying about myself and not the team. I can’t do that.

“Cooley was a big factor banging inside, but we played well for about 35 minutes. We have to play 40 minutes. We played aggressively, but we have to get some wins.”

Young was one of four Demons in double figures. Jeremiah Kelly came off the bench to score a team-high 17 points, Cleveland Melvin had 16 and Jamee Crockett 13.

Irish guards Jerian Grant (22 points, five assists) and Eric Atkins (14 points, six assists) were keys. They sank seven free throws in the closing three minutes to seal the victory.

“I told our team this was as good a win as the last two Saturdays [against then-No. 1 Syracuse and then-No. 15 Marquette] because DePaul has had a rough go and they would play loose,” Brey said. “They’re tough to guard, they speed up the game and don’t turn it over.”

The Demons scored 17 points off only 12 Notre Dame turnovers, but the Irish had 38 points in the paint and 13 second-chance points from their 33-23 rebounding edge.

“The positive is we can play a lot better, and we played better,” Purnell said. “On the road at Notre Dame with a chance to win at the end, that’s where you want to be.”