Notre Dame men's basketball: Upset of Duke put to rest

South Bend Tribune

It served as a five-course meal for a college basketball program starved for something to go its way after two trying weeks.

It was a road map back toward national relevance after too much time spent wandering through non-league play.

Opening Atlantic Coast Conference affiliation Saturday by beating perennial league power Duke was a boost for Notre Dame, but a veteran team that has learned to stay steady during the ups and downs and arounds of conference play knows that for all those positive vibes to keep flowing, the Irish (10-4; 1-0) must follow up Tuesday (9 p.m.; ESPN3) with another similarly excellent effort at home against North Carolina State (10-4; 0-1).

Working through his third different conference of his five-year collegiate career, Irish power forward Garrick Sherman isn’t concerned about shaking a Duke hangover. There’s simply never time this time of year to celebrate any success for more than a few hours. It’s win, get back to work and don’t even try to breathe easier. When you do, you get bit.

“There are no easy games in the ACC, just like the Big East, Big Ten, whatever,” Sherman said. “Conference games are conference games so you’ve got to refocus and be ready.”

Feeling satisfied for starting 1-0 in the ACC shouldn’t be an issue for an Irish team that has historically turned the conference page, win or lose. As well as junior captain Pat Connaughton played against Duke (16 points, eight rebounds, five assists in 37 minutes), he likely was thinking about how to be even better against the Wolfpack by the time he stepped out into a snowy Saturday night.

“My mindset is 10 minutes after I shower, that game’s over,” Connaughton said. “We’ve got to look forward. We’re not good enough to overlook games. When we focus on games, that’s when we show how good we are.”

And when the Irish let that focus slide, if only for a handful of possessions, that’s when they show how good they’re not.

When Notre Dame gathered Sunday, coach Mike Brey likely didn’t immediately cue up Connaughton’s two tomahawk dunks in the second half, or how his bigs dominated to allow the Irish to score 44 points in the paint, or some of the prime-time plays delivered during a 20-4 second-half run. Brey did talk on three minutes of second-half possessions that saw the Irish, in his words, get “wacky” on both ends and fall out of character.

Following a Demetrius Jackson layup off an inbound pass that tied the game at 40, Notre Dame allowed Duke to run off nine unanswered points in less than three minutes. Unable to get into good offense – the Irish quick-shot it, declined the extra pass and didn’t gang rebound – led to easy looks for the Blue Devils. That included Connaughton fouling Quinn Cook on a wing 3-pointer – Cook made all three free throws – not getting back quickly enough in transition and also allowing Cook to start a drive somewhere near Shipshewana before finishing alone at the rim.

Just like that – snap! – the Irish were down eight and wondering.

“We were out of character for that segment,” Brey said. “We’ve got to be better there. I thought we played panicky on offense and it led to poor defense.”

Clips of the segment were mandatory viewing following Monday evening’s practice.

Skirt the thinnest of margins for error like that during league play again and against a North Carolina State team that really needs a league win, and much of what Notre Dame did Saturday will be dismissed as a one-time wonder. Typical up-and-down Irish.

“I’m happy that people are going to start believing in us, but we’re going to have to come out and follow it up or people are going to forget about this one really quickly” said Irish guard Eric Atkins. “This is conference play. Games are going to come quickly and we’re going to have to get another win soon.

“It’s on us veteran guys to get everybody to focus right away.”

Really, it’s on Atkins, who’s been handed the deed to the Irish program and told to run with it. He has. Atkins delivered another big effort of 19 points and 11 assists against Duke. Needing to be even more of a steady voice with the loss of leading scorer Jerian Grant for the spring semester because of academics, Atkins has embraced being the biggest part of everything. And then he has been while earning consecutive league player of the week honors for the first time in his career.

‘He’s feeling really good,” Brey said. “He’s really a confident guy.”

That confidence has become contagious in the push for playing time in the Irish locker room. Weeks earlier, one could step into the room and point to this guy or that guy or those guys as being a bit disenchanted or disillusioned with their roles. With Grant, Brey stayed with a short bench of six and seven, sometimes eight and rarely nine contributors. The guys on the outside of the rotation looking in were forced to fight for minutes that usually arrived only on the practice floor.

Without Grant, the rotation doors have been busted off the hinges and thrown aside. Who’s starting? Who’s playing? Who’s contributing? Who isn’t? Notre Dame has fielded three different starting lineups in the last three games. The group that finished the Duke game looked little like the five that helped clip Canisius in overtime five days prior.

It likely will be more of the same against North Carolina State as someone new steps from the shadows and delivers something big somewhere along the way.

“When you have that with nine guys, you have a great vibe in that locker room ’cause they all know they’re part of it,” Brey said. “There’s no energy-draining guys ’cause they’re not playing, ’cause everybody’s playing.”

Notre Dame's Garrick Sherman (11) hugs Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey following the 79-77 victory over Duke in the ACC conference opener on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN