Notre Dame men's basketball: Atkins helps Irish escape

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Emotion is an element of his game that Notre Dame senior captain Eric Atkins prefers to keep under control, and that was no exception following Sunday’s final horn.

Having played all 45 minutes of an overtime game against a Canisius team that never would go away, Atkins dropped his head, offered no hint of even a smile and walked slowly away from center court. A few minutes earlier, Atkins couldn’t help but get happy after delivering a critical 3-pointer in the closing seconds that allowed Notre Dame to secure an 87-81 victory.

Working off a ball-screen situation with power forward Garrick Sherman near the top of the key, Atkins slipped free with his dribble and created the slightest of openings. He then calmly and coolly collected his dribble and bumped what was a one-point Irish lead to four with 12.8 seconds remaining.

Big play.

Big shot.

Big win.

“I was just looking to make a play,” Atkins said. “I had an opening from 3 and I was shooting it good all game (he finished 4-of-6 from 3) so I stepped up and took it.”

When it fell, Atkins bounced up and down a couple times and let out a big yell near midcourt.

“After that shot went in, I got a little hyped after that 3,” Atkins said. “It felt good to go in.”

Earlier in the week, Atkins accepted the fact that his workload would increase dramatically following the dismissal of his best friend and fellow starting guard Jerian Grant for the spring semester due to an academic violation. Atkins then went for a career-high 30 points to go with seven assists, three rebounds and two steals.

The irony of the evening? Had Grant still been on the team, it may have well been up to him to take and make the shot Atkins did to ice it.

It had been 18 days – 18 long days – since the Irish last played at home. That night, Notre Dame lost to North Dakota State, a game that many figured would change the course of the Irish season. Nobody knew what was to come. Following the loss eight days earlier to No. 3 Ohio State when Notre Dame allowed an eight-point lead slip away in 32 seconds, the home team needed something to go their way.

The Irish nearly gave this one away as well. Up five with 1:52 left, the Irish were bad with the ball and let Canisius tie it 50 seconds later.

“We weren’t thinking about the Ohio State game at all,” Sherman said. “We knew we needed to get a win.”

There’s still a long way for this new-look Irish outfit to go, but this was a good first step for all involved.

“I think It’s very fitting that Eric Atkins, given the week that we’ve had, would just say, ‘I got your back. I’m going to carry us and figure it out,’” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “That is your senior captain delivering when your team needs it bad.”

Atkins refused to let Notre Dame drop consecutive home games for the first time since 2008-09. He also had some help. Sherman, who was promoted to captain three days earlier, finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds, the third double-double of his career and the third in the last six games. Sophomore Zach Auguste, who racked up two DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision) earlier this month, responded to the opportunity to play with 12 points and eight rebounds in 16 minutes.

“I’m hungry, real hungry,” Auguste said. “We really had our back against the wall with nothing to lose with our situation. I just went out there cool and did my thing.”

Notre Dame (9-4) had no answer for Canisius guard Billy Baron, the coach’s son who put on one of the most impressive displays by an opponent ever witnessed in Purcell Pavilion. Baron broke loose for a game-high 33 points, which tied his career high. Twenty-six of those came after halftime. At one point, he rolled off 12 consecutive points in a 4:09 stretch. Baron also had a career-high six steals, six rebounds and five assists in 43 minutes.

“Teammates helped me out; screens set me up,” Baron said. “That was it. Just extremely disappointed. We battled.”

“He put a little doubt in us,” Atkins said. “He was hitting big-time shots.”

Canisius coach Jim Baron, who spent six seasons as an Irish assistant to Digger Phelps, believed his team had done enough to earn the road win, but had opportunity swiped by the officials. Late in regulation with the score tied at 73, the younger Baron stripped Atkins as the Irish guard drove down the lane. Baron seemingly secured the steal on the baseline under the Irish basket and insisted that he had tried to call a timeout. It would have given the visitors possession with 28 seconds remaining.

“On the road, you’re not going to get some calls,” he said. “It’s just not going to go your way.”

Officials ruled that Baron had first stepped out of bounds with possession. That gave the Irish a fresh clock and the chance to win it in regulation.

“If he has possession and he calls a timeout, how could they say he went out of bounds?” Coach Baron wondered. “If he calls time out before he goes out of bounds, it’s our ball. You can’t have it both ways.

“I thought that was our best opportunity to win that game. We played hard.”

The Irish then had a chance to win it in regulation, but Atkins dribbled out too much of the final 28 seconds and never could get a shot. He made up for it in the extra session.

Brey spent much of the first half mixing and matching and searching for a lineup combination. He called on all nine available scholarship players the first 6:45. He used seven different lineups the first 11 minutes. By the time the first 20 minutes were in the books, a half that saw Canisius lead by as many as eight, Notre Dame used 10 different lineups.

“We had some lineups there that we never had close to in a game, and guys delivered,” Brey said. “We were winging it in a game situation trying to figure out what our lineup is.”

That search continued in the second half. With a whole lot of big-time game pressure on the home team, Brey leaned heavily on a group of Atkins and Sherman and junior Pat Connaughton with freshmen V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia. The rookies then played like veterans.

Like Atkins, the kids delivered.

CANISIUS (8-5): Chris Manhertz 6-11 0-0 12, Jordan Heath 5-11 0-1 13, Billy Baron 10-20 9-9 33, Chris Perez 1-8 2-2 5, Dominique Raney 3-9 0-0 6, Zach Lewis 3-5 0-0 8, Jeremiah Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Phil Valenti 1-1 0-0 2, Josiah Heath 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 30-67 11-12 81.

NOTRE DAME (9-4): Tom Knight 2-3 0-0 4, Garrick Sherman 7-13 3-3 17, Eric Atkins 10-14 4-6 30, Demetrius Jackson 0-5 4-4 4, Pat Connaughton 3-11 0-0 6, V.J. Beachem 2-9 1-1 6, Austin Burgett 1-1 1-1 3, Zach Auguste 5-7 2-4 12, Steve Vasturia 1-3 2-2 5. Totals 31-66 17-21 87.

Halftime — Canisius 33-31. End Of Regulation — Tied 73. 3-Point Goals — Canisius 10-21 (Baron 4-8, Jor. Heath 3-5, Lewis 2-3, Perez 1-2, Raney 0-3), Notre Dame 8-19 (Atkins 6-8, Vasturia 1-3, Beachem 1-5, Connaughton 0-1, Jackson 0-2). Fouled Out — Manhertz. Rebounds — Canisius 31 (Jor. Heath, Manhertz 11), Notre Dame 44 (Sherman 10). Assists — Canisius 14 (Baron 5), Notre Dame 17 (Atkins 7). Total Fouls — Canisius 19, Notre Dame 12. A — 8,400.

Notre Dame's Eric Atkins (0) gets by Canisius's Billy Baron (12) and Jordan Heath (35).  Notre Dame won the game 87 to 81 in overtime. SBT Photo/MIKE HARTMAN