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Irish enjoy cruise after hot 1st half

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When you’re hot, you’re hot.

Late in the first half against St. John’s on Saturday night, Notre Dame sophomore Jack Cooley was hemmed in on the baseline with the shot clock winding down. With nowhere to go, he fired a pass nearly over the head of Tim Abromaitis at the top of the key. Abromaitis slapped the ball to guard Eric Atkins on the perimeter. By then, all Atkins could do was force a desperation three-pointer.

It not only beat the shot clock, but banked in off the glass for one of seven three-pointers the Irish made in the first half that propelled Notre Dame to a 76-61 victory over Big East leader St. John’s at the Joyce Center.

‘‘I just let it go,’’ Atkins said. ‘‘We practice halfcourt shots before every game. It wasn’t quite halfcourt, but it definitely helped me out on that one.’’

Ben Hansbrough, Abromaitis and Atkins combined to make 7 of 9 three-pointers in the first half as Notre Dame (14-2, 3-1 in the Big East) built a 44-25 lead and coasted to the victory.

Hansbrough continued his outstanding play, scoring a career-high 26 points — 13 in each half — and adding four steals and three assists to lead the Irish. Abromaitis added 12 points, nine rebounds and four assists, and Scott Martin had 12 points and nine rebounds.

The Irish also did a stellar job defensively, holding St. John’s (10-4, 3-1) to 38-percent shooting (21-for-55), including 2-for-11 on three-pointers. Guard Dwight Hardy, the reigning Big East player of the week who had averaged 21.7 points in his previous seven games, scored eight points on 2-for-5 shooting.

‘‘I think he beat us here last year with some big-time threes,’’ Hansbrough said, referring to Hardy’s 5-for-7 three-point shooting in St. John’s 69-68 victory at the Joyce Center. ‘‘This year it’s a different team. We came out throwing the first punches and maintained the lead the whole time, and we were able to impose our will on them.’’

The Irish missed their first seven three-pointers in the second half but defended well and worked the ball inside — with Hansbrough scoring on three layups — to maintain the comfortable lead.

‘‘I give Ben a lot of credit,’’ Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. ‘‘No one talks about him, but is anybody playing better than him in the Big East?

‘‘He’s not only playing the whole game for us, he’s scoring and going for the jugular on teams to put them away.’’

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