Notre Dame men's basketball: Wins don’t come much bigger

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Cornered in a cramped corridor of Bankers Life Fieldhouse early Saturday evening, junior co-captain Pat Connaughton corralled questions after one of Notre Dame’s biggest bounce-back wins in recent memory.

Finals were still days away, but Connaughton already faced an early history exam.

When was the last time Connaughton could remember Notre Dame having such a must-win scenario as Saturday against Indiana in the third-annual Crossroads Classic?

Connaughton offered a snapshot from his freshman season in 2011-12. The Irish lost leading scorer and potential Big East player of the year Tim Abromaitis to a season-ending knee injury three days after losses to Missouri and Georgia. Without Abromaitis, the Irish also lost at Gonzaga and in Washington to Maryland.

In early December, Notre Dame was reeling, spinning, and wondering at 5-4. It needed a good game against … Maine, and won 87-78.

That effort was easy compared to what Notre Dame pulled off against Indiana. Three days after looking so lethargic in a home loss to North Dakota State, Notre Dame played its finest 40 minutes this season for a 79-72 victory.

The Hoosiers never led.

“This one was big,” said Connaughton, who scored all 14 of his points in the second half to go with nine rebounds. “We lost to two teams (also Indiana State) that people probably think we shouldn’t no matter how good they are.

“We had to come out and prove ourselves in a hostile environment and get the win.”

Seldom during coach Mike Brey’s 14 seasons have the Irish been backed so deeply into the proverbial corner this early in the hoops calendar. When it last happened in 2011-12, the Irish weathered everything and finished 22-12. It’s happened during recent conference play, and may again in the coming months. The Irish have delivered then, and they knew they had to deliver Saturday. Playing well and losing like they did earlier in the month at No. 23 Iowa was not an option for a veteran group.

“They’re not idiots,” said Brey. “They know we’ve got to be better or this could get really ugly. This slows the bleeding a little bit. Next Saturday would stop the bleeding.”

Notre Dame is 8-3 heading into Saturday’s game against No. 3 Ohio State at Madison Square Garden. There’s still plenty of work to be done for this Irish team to get to where it believes it belongs, but a win in central Indiana against the state’s premier program goes a long way toward getting Notre Dame back in gear.

“It’s huge,” Connaughton said. “Indiana in the past has kind of dominated the state and we’ve been kind of able to shift that.” Solid Sherman Fifth-year senior power forward Garrick Sherman averaged 2.5 points and 2.1 rebounds in 9.6 minutes during his first two seasons at Michigan State. In two games against Big Ten teams this season – Iowa and Indiana —Sherman is averaging 22.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in 29.5 minutes.

He scored a career-high 29 points with nine rebounds earlier this month against the Hawkeyes, then had 16 points and six rebounds against the Hoosiers.

“I just felt pretty comfortable,” he said. “I was able to get a few moves to go. After you get the first one to go, it’s pretty easy to get going.”Having seen how the Hoosiers guard during his two years at Michigan State helped. He knew that anytime a big man gets the ball in the low post, an extra defender would double team.

Sherman had to act and think fast.

“I had a good feel for when they were coming and when they were going to leave me alone,” said Sherman, who shot 6-of-7 from the floor and went to the foul line nine times. “I know how to adjust to them. I was ready for it.”

Sherman also played smart defensively. He picked up two fouls the first 11-plus minutes, then had only one the final 29.

Jackson delivers on defense One play late in Saturday’s second half underscored how committed the Irish were to not give in on defense, which seldom happened when Iowa reeled off 98 points. With Notre Dame up five and 3:26 remaining, guard Demetrius Jackson was beaten off the dribble by Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, who looked to have a clear layup. But Jackson found another gear, closed the gap in a blink and came from somewhere near Kokomo to swat Ferrell’s point-blank layup with his right hand. “That was an amazing play,” said Brey. “We’ve never had a Notre Dame guard, ever, make a play like that.” Jackson didn’t have a basket and finished with five points, tworebounds and two assists in 25 minutes. Brey believes he still took a big step in being on the floor when the Irish leaned heavily on their man-to-man late. “For Demetrius Jackson to be involved in that was very important for our team,” Brey said. “He was fabulous defending and giving us a physical presence.” Grant’s good Wednesday was a night to forget for Irish senior guard Jerian Grant. For the first time this season, he failed to score double figures (nine points) and was 0-for-5 from the floor. For as much as he struggled, he was really solid against the Hoosiers. Grant scored a game-high 23 points, including 11-of-11 from the free throw line, and nine assists in 38 minutes. Brey helped him be better. “Coach is always like, on to the next game,” Grant said. “He’s a coach that doesn’t dwell on a bad performance or a bad loss. Just having him and the guys on the team pick me up and say, ‘Next game,’ it was easy to get back on track.” Grant hit one of the game’s biggest shots to close the first half. Working off a double screen, Grant worked free in front of the Indiana bench for one of his patented step-back threes that gave the Irish a 47-42 lead. He scored eight of his 23 in the final 9:27. Iowa City energy Brey hoped he would see a certain look in his players’ eyes the night before Saturday’s game. It was the same look he saw on the eve of the Iowa game, a look that told him his veterans were ready with a big effort for a big challenge. Brey didn’t have to wait until Friday to see it against Indiana. He saw it in practice earlier that day. Thanks to a saturated (crazy?) schedule that had the Irish play three games in five days, Friday was the first time they had practiced since the previous Friday. It showed in the lackluster effort against North Dakota State. But it was wiped clean with a good scrimmage-like session on Friday. “We got back into flowing offensively a little bit, got up and down the floor, played well, shot it well,” Brey said. “I think that helped our offensive guys get into a flow.” Notre Dame scored 47 points and shot 51.5 percent from the field in the first half. Auguste  resurfaces Less than six minutes into Saturday’s game, sophomore power forward Zach Auguste found himself in an unfamiliar spot – at the scorer’s table preparing to check in. Three seconds after he did, Auguste had his first basket in 11 days. It was the first time in a week – since the first half of the Delaware game the previous Saturday – that Auguste played. He logged two DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision) earlier in the week against Bryant and North Dakota State. Why he got an early call Saturday as the second big off the bench behind Tom Knight was no mystery. “It’s real simple. … because he practiced better,” Brey said. “Like, we ain’t giving minutes out. You’ve got to practice for me to get confident in you.” Next step for Auguste is to carry over a consistent effort for two halves.On Saturday, he was active and aggressive and focused to score six points on three-of-three from the field with two blocks, a steal and a rebound in nine really good minutes. His work allowed the three Irish bigs – Auguste, Knight and Sherman – to combine for 27 points on 11-of-14 shooting and eight rebounds the first 20 minutes.Auguste played five scoreless minutes with no points, no rebounds, two fouls and a turnover in the second half. TNoie@SBTinfo.com574-235-6153Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey watches the action during a mens NCAA college basketball game in the Crossroads Classic on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER