Notre Dame men's basketball notebook: Irish are fine big and small
SOUTH BEND -- One consistent query cruised shotgun with Notre Dame as it prepared for basketball life in a new conference.
How would the Irish adapt to the free-wheeling, court-spreading, point-scoring, perimeter-heavy Atlantic Coast Conference?
The most popular answer often was another question – how would the ACC adapt to Notre Dame and its chameleon-like playing ways?
If Saturday was any indication, it will be an adjustment for league teams to deal with the strength and size of a Notre Dame squad unafraid to revisit its bang-body Big East ways.
Able to discourage seventh-ranked Duke with a whole lot of length along the front line, Notre Dame opened ACC affiliation with a memorable 79-77 victory at Purcell Pavilion. The Irish scored 44 points in the paint, won the rebounding battle 39-30, got to the free throw line 24 times, including 18 in the second half and blocked six shots.
Notre Dame won a big game by starting big with a lineup that featured sophomore Zach Auguste (6-foot-10) and senior captain Garrick Sherman (6-11).
“We pounded away and our big guys were really good setting the tone,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “We really wanted to throw it inside. I like what we did.
“We wanted to play closer to the bucket ’cause we were bigger than them.”
Going small with a second-half lineup that featured four guards paired with 6-9 stretch-four man Austin Burgett allowed the Irish to erase a 10-point deficit with 11:33 remaining. But the bigs did their part when required.
Auguste and Sherman were active early. Tom Knight (6-10) delivered a two-handed gorilla dunk off an inbound pass. Burgett blocked everything he could get to.
And when Notre Dame needed a basket in a one-point game, they looked low to Sherman, who delivered a jump hook to make it 76-73 with 32.5 seconds left.
Going with different big combinations of Auguste and Burgett and Knight and Sherman dictated to the Blue Devils that the Irish weren’t going to be pushed around.
“We knew we were going to come in and try and beat them up and be more physical than them,” said Sherman, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds. “We did that at times.”
Rather than be intimidated by freshman phenom Jabari Parker, a sure-fire NBA lottery pick next summer, the Irish used their size to force him to play like a freshman in his first true road game. Having scored double figures in each of his previous 13 games, Parker never was a factor while guarded by a steady stream of bigs. He finished 2-of-10 from the floor for seven points. He didn’t have a basket over the final 22 minutes.
When it was over, it was a statement game for a program needing one.
“We’re still here; we’re going to compete,” Sherman said. “We’re not some easy win in the ACC that every-body thinks they’re going to get.”
Able to think like Parker as the freshman looked for an easy bucket in the low post late in Saturday’s first half allowed Burgett to bring the first of several highlight moments for the Irish.
Working against the interior defense of Knight, Parker turned over his left shoulder and rose, ready to drop in a high-percentage shot. But Burgett left the weak side and the guy he was guarding, Amile Jefferson, and elevated while Parker still had his back to the basket. The volleyball-like spike was one of a career-high five blocks for Burgett and his 37-inch vertical leap.
“I’m thinking, if I’m him, I’m not passing the ball, so I just came over and helped,” Burgett said.
Burgett’s play Saturday – he also had five rebounds – rekindled memories of former Irish forward Ty Nash for guard Eric Atkins. Unlike Nash, Burgett isn’t left-handed and doesn’t hail from a major metropolitan area (he’s from Avon, Ind.; Nash is from Queens, N.Y.) but Atkins believes the two play the same way.
“He’s a dynamic defender,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve had a dynamic defender out there since Ty Nash. Ty could guard every position and I think ‘Burg’ can do the same thing.”
Later in the second half, while trailing Duke guard Quinn Cook to the basket, Burgett closed and swatted a certain layup. It again got the sellout crowd going, but not his teammates.
“He really gets up in practice all the time,” Atkins said of Burgett, who has 13 blocks this season. “To see him do it in a game, I’m proud of him.”
Tossed into a tough position two weeks earlier when he was asked to shoot the first free throw of his college career as the second-half melt-down against No. 3 Ohio State was in full swing (he missed, the Irish lost) Irish freshman guard Steve Vasturia has since delivered in big ways.
On the floor at key times in the overtime victory against Canisius, Vasturia finished with then-career highs for points (five) and minutes (22). On the floor again for the key second-half Saturday, Vasturia tied his career high for minutes (22) with a career-best nine points on three 3-pointers.
“They felt good,” Vasturia said. “I was open. I was happy they went down.”
That included a critical catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from the top of the key that bumped the Irish lead to 68-64 with 4:56 left.
“His shot may be the shot of the game,” Brey said. “That was a huge shot right there to really make us believe.”
Freshman guard Demetrius Jackson attended his share of Notre Dame games while at Marian High School, including February’s five-overtime extravaganza against Louisville.
But nothing compared to the energy that Jackson experienced Saturday at Purcell Pavilion during the season’s second sellout of 9,149. Even with most of the student body home for winter break, the building was as electric as it’s been in a long time with fans who really wanted to make their voices matter.
“The Louisville game was pretty loud, but maybe I had a different perspective on that,” Jackson said. “Our crowd did a great job energizing us.”
Jackson admitted that all he thought he learned about college basketball during non-conference play has changed in league play. Everything about conference contests, and playing a program as established as Duke, is so much more intense than he ever imagined.
“It’s a lot more difficult than it seems,” he said. “We see the names on the front of the jersey, but they’ve got to lace their shoes up just like we do.”
Better with ball
One day after the Dec. 29 overtime victory against Canisius, when Notre Dame tied its season high with 16 turnovers, the Irish gathered to watch film of every single miscue. The message from Brey? Unacceptable.
“We’re just better with the ball than that,” he said.
Saturday against Duke, Notre Dame committed only six turnovers, its fewest in eight games. Subtract Pat Connaughton’s baseball-type pass to Atkins, which was intercepted by Cook one second before the final horn, and Notre Dame worked the final 8:21 without once giving the ball away.
“We slowed down a little bit; we were safer with the basketball,” Brey said. “That’s really who we’ve been.”