It was supposed to be the perfect sendoff.
Notre Dame held a 66-40 lead on St. Johns with 1:46 remaining in the No. 24 Irishs final home game of the season March 5.
Irish coach Mike Brey took a 30-second timeout to take forward Jack Cooley out of the game. The idea was to give the senior a final bow in Purcell Pavilion after he had already recorded yet another double-double (12 points, 13 rebounds) in his final home game.
But just seconds into the ovation Cooley was receiving, St. Johns SirDominic Pointer and Notre Dames Cameron Biedscheid traded punches at midcourt, and Cooley and the rest of the players on the court had to break up the scuffle that marred the Irishs 66-40 victory that night.
I think he will always remember how I tried to get him out for his ovation, said Brey, whose 25-9 team is a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament and begins play at 9:45 p.m. Friday against No. 10 Iowa State (22-11) in Dayton. That will be something he talks about at his reunion 10, 15, 20 years from now.
Cooleys contributions to the Irish will also be remembered for decades to come, even though there was no way of knowing how productive the 6-foot-9 Glenview, Ill., native was going to be after his first two seasons.
Cooley played in 21 games during his freshman season in 2009-10, averaging just 5.3 minutes, as he played behind former Irish star Luke Harangody.
After Harangody graduated, Cooley started getting more playing time, but he was still a reserve behind the Irishs frontcourt players Tyrone Nash, Carleton Scott and Tim Abromaitis. He played in 34 games, averaging 3.7 points and 3.1 rebounds in 10.3 minutes per game.
But when Nash graduated and Scott left with a year of eligibility remaining after the 2010-11 season, Brey knew he needed to turn to Cooley to take over the available minutes in the front court.
Cooley didnt disappoint. He averaged 12.5 points and 8.9 rebounds in 28.7 minutes per game as a junior. He was named the Big Easts most improved player and landed a spot on the all-conference second team.
Cooley didnt slow down this year after being named to preseason All-Big East first team. He averaged a double-double (13.5 points and 10.5 rebounds) during the regular season and was named to the All-Big East first team after the season. He enters the NCAA tournament averaging 13.1 points and 10.3 rebounds after the Irishs run to the Big East tournament semifinals last week.
The four years here have just been incredible, Cooley said. Its meant the world to me. Its been the most fun four years Ive had in my entire life. Its lived up beyond all expectations. I changed from being a freshman not playing much to playing very big minutes. Its been a magical experience.
Cooleys value was truly on display in the Irishs 72-64 loss at then-No. 22 Marquette on March 2. Battling flu-like symptoms, Cooley was limited to 15 minutes, had one rebound and missed the only shot he took.
The Eagles also took advantage of Cooleys limited role, matching the Irishs production in the paint with 28 points.
We didnt get much in the paint that game, junior guard Eric Atkins said. Marquette was driving it on us. Hes the guy that doesnt let anything easy happen down there. I noticed it really early in that game that we were missing him.
Notre Dame will miss Cooley next season as his career ends whenever the Irishs run in the NCAA tournament ends.
Atkins said playing without Cooley is not something he wants to think about.
Hes one of the best teammates you could have, Atkins said. Hes always willing to do the dirty work.
The tough rebounding, the screen off the ball, the screen on the ball, the screens in the backcourt that he has been killing people on lately, I feel bad for the guards running into him.
He is just the perfect teammate.