Notre Dame men's basketball: Irish learning to expect hoops success
SOUTH BEND — Moments after the final horn, Eric Atkins seemed more angry than anything.
His first reaction after Notre Dame’s 79-77 win over No. 7 Duke was to motion to the fans, imploring them to keep from storming the floor.
“I want us to expect these types of wins,” said Atkins, who had 19 points and 11 assists to make that win possible. “I understand, most people didn’t give us a chance in this game. This program has gotten the type of wins to expect (this).
“That’s why I didn’t want anybody to rush the court. I was a little upset. I actually thought about that before the game. I expected to win. I didn’t want anyone to rush it.”
Like Atkins, Irish head coach Mike Brey might have expected the win in ND’s first-ever Atlantic Coast Conference game, but he didn’t downplay its significance to the Notre Dame basketball program.
“To beat that (Duke) program, the flagship program of the (ACC), it was a little bit like when I got here in 2000,” Brey said. “We were fortunate enough to beat Syracuse and Connecticut. Those were ‘program wins.’ You look like you belong.
“This is the team you’ve gotta beat in the ACC if you want to kinda feel and look like you belong. That’s real big for us to start off this way.”
Midway through the second half, it seemed like an unlikely start.
Down 10 midway through the second half, Notre Dame (10-4, 1-0) had every reason to pack it in. Take it as a good effort for 30 minutes and get better in time for Tuesday’s late-night battle with North Carolina State.
Remember, this was Duke (11-3, 0-1). College basketball royalty. A team that doesn’t blow a big lead at crunch time, like Notre Dame just did a couple weeks ago against Ohio State.
But, leave it to the new-look Irish to surprise people.
“We just stopped playing the defense that we were playing,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “However, (Notre Dame is) a good offensive team.”
Not bad on defense, either.
“We’ve been (down) before; this nucleus has been there before,” said Atkins. “Ten points is not that much (with about 11 minutes left). We knew we were OK. We came together, got a couple stops. That’s how we did it.”
“In the timeout when we’re down 10, I wasn’t talking, (Atkins) was talking,” Brey said. “He’s like, ‘Hey, we get out of here, we get a couple stops. ...’ Our experience has been great and Eric really sets the tone for us.”
“That’s one of the things we’ve focused on: One play at a time,” said Irish big man Garrick Sherman, who seems to be preparing for a “Duck Dynasty” audition with his season worth of facial-hair growth. “There’s a lot of time left. We’re fine. We have faith. We’re going to make our run.”
The Irish did — with the help of a youngster. While Atkins and Pat Connaughton were the driving forces in the revival and rookie Steve Vasturia hit a big 3-pointer, freshman Demetrius Jackson (8 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists) made his presence felt with the game in the balance.
The Marian High grad, scoreless and shot-less while playing just 10 first-half minutes, came alive in the second half. With 11:20 to play and the Irish trailing 60-50, Jackson drained a 3-pointer from the right side.
“Jackson’s 3 when it was 60-50 was a quick answer to our 10-point lead,” said Krzyzewski. “That was the biggest shot of the game.”
As the seconds ticked down and the Irish clung to a two-point lead, Duke’s Rodney Hood penetrated, then tried to kick the ball out. Jackson stepped into the passing lane to get the steal. After a foul, his two free throws iced the victory.
“It’s very difficult (to get into the flow of the game after an uneventful first half),” Jackson said. “When I come in, I just try to play as hard as I can. I feel I didn’t do that in the first half. The second half, I told myself I was going to play harder.”
“(Jackson) is always so engaged,” Brey said. “He doesn’t hang his head. It’s happened before: He sat for a while (against Canisius) and then he came back.
“We’re seeing him get better and more confident. Today was important for him to be involved in big plays against a good team in a league.
“One thing he was doing was guarding. He was getting his hands on stuff; he was flying around; he was locking into their guards. That’s what we want him to start doing: Guard first.”
And, like everybody else, expect to win.
Except next time, stay in the stands and act like it’s happened before.
Because now it has.