Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins (0) drives past Cincinnati forward Jermaine Sanders in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, in Cincinnati. Notre Dame won 66-60. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
CINCINNATI (AP) — Pass, pass, pass, pass. Then, pass again before finding and making a wide-open shot. No. 17 Notre Dame got everyone involved in extending its notable winning streak.
Jerian Grant scored 19 points and the Fighting Irish patiently worked for open shots that set up a 66-60 victory Monday night over No. 21 Cincinnati, their 12th straight win.
Notre Dame (14-1, 2-0 Big East) is on its best winning streak since it also won 12 in a row in 2006-07. The 14-1 mark is the best start during coach Mike Brey’s 13 seasons.
This time, he’s got an experienced roster that loves to share. Notre Dame is among the national leaders with 19 assists per game.
“That’s been our program,” Brey said. “There’s a culture of passing the ball here. We recruit basketball IQ guys, and I think there’s a lot of trust that we’re going to keep moving that thing. That’s why we have great balance.
“We can move it until we get the right guy to take the shot. And we enjoy moving it. Tonight we had some amazing possessions where we got guys out of position.”
The Fighting Irish did it their way, spreading out a defense that has been Cincinnati’s strength. Notre Dame shot 50 percent from the field and went 9 of 16 behind the arc.
Cincinnati (13-3, 1-2) wore new, all-black uniforms — Notre Dame wore white — for a home game that took on extra significance. The Bearcats opened the season 12-0, then lost two of their last three games, falling to New Mexico and St. John’s at home.
They have lost three straight at home for the first time since 2006-07, coach Mick Cronin’s first season picking up the pieces from coach Bob Huggins’ ouster.
The school celebrated its impressive start by having President Santa J. Ono get his head shaved on the court after the game on Monday. Ono agreed to lose his hair if the Bearcats won 10 in a row, turning the streak into a fundraising opportunity for a charity.
Despite the pomp, the Bearcats lost again. Sean Kilpatrick led Cincinnati with 15 points.
“It’s the Big East now,” Kilpatrick said. “We’re in a league where everyone on their roster can play. That’s something we’ve really got to figure out now. It’s not like it’s December anymore. It’s January and this is the meat of our schedule and we’ve really got to get that in our minds.”
The Bearcats extended their man-to-man defense beyond the arc, trying to take away Notre Dame’s best feature. They couldn’t do it.
The Fighting Irish lead the Big East and rank fifth nationally shooting 59.8 percent from the field. They went 12 of 18 from behind the arc during a 93-74 win over Seton Hall on Saturday, setting a school record for a Big East game. Scott Martin made six of his seven 3-point attempts in that one.
When Cincinnati clamped down on the perimeter, 6-foot-9 forward Jack Cooley got openings inside. He finished with 11 points and eight rebounds.
“Our guards were fabulous tonight,” Brey said. “I think we have the best backcourt in the country, frankly, and they played like it tonight on the road. The 3 was not going to do it, and we had to get some other stuff.”
The Bearcats’ halfcourt offense has been their biggest problem the last few games. They had another setback when Kilpatrick landed awkwardly and limped off the court midway through the first half, favoring his right foot. JaQuon Parker replaced him and hit consecutive 3s that put Cincinnati ahead 20-11, its biggest lead of the game.
Kilpatrick returned and Notre Dame found its long-range touch. The Fighting Irish made their last six shots from behind the arc in the half — two by Martin — to pull ahead 32-28.
Martin opened the second half with a 3-pointer. The Fighting Irish made five passes before finding Grant open for another 3 that gave Notre Dame its biggest lead at 40-29 with 18 minutes left.
Kilpatrick hit two 3s and made a fastbreak layup off Cashmere Wright’s steal during a 13-3 run that evened the game at 47.
Point guard Eric Atkins had a driving bank shot and made an over-the-shoulder pass to Cooley for a layup during a 10-point run that put Notre Dame ahead to stay at 59-49 with 5:42 left. Atkins had 10 points and six assists.
Grant hit a fade-away jumper that kept Notre Dame ahead 64-56 with 1:32 left.
“Very few guys can get that shot off, let alone make it,” Cronin said.
Cronin benched forward Justin Jackson, who had started the first 15 games but failed to score in three of the last five.