Notre Dame men dig deep, end skid

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Driving baseline with a speed dribble during the second half of another close Atlantic Coast Conference basketball game Sunday against Virginia Tech, Notre Dame junior captain Pat Connaughton was bumped out of bounds and reacted aloud to an official’s whistle. “We’ll take that!” he said of the foul call. The same could be said for Connaughton’s contribution and the end Irish result. Connaughton scored 21 points with eight rebounds, both game highs, to make sure Notre Dame’s league losing streak stopped at three with a 70-63 victory. Afterward, Connaughton feigned despondence after being informed that he had scored more points than his beloved New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game. The football game started three hours before the Irish hoops tip, but Connaughton insisted he knew nothing of the final outcome before being informed that Denver had won 26-16. “Man, no comment on that,” Connaughton joked. “Can’t you let me enjoy this win for a while?” Still, the night wasn’t all lost for Connaughton. Not after the Irish (11-7; 2-3 ACC) had labored the last 15 days and three league games without a win. Seldom had Connaughton gone so long in his basketball career without a victory. “Words don’t describe how much we needed this one,” Connaughton said. “This was a game we needed to come out and get. Being 1-3 in the league, you’ve got to dig down deep and get a win no matter how you do it, no matter how much it’s by, no matter how ugly it is.” It was way beyond a must-win on a night that former coach Digger Phelps was inducted into the Notre Dame Ring of Honor. It was a gotta-have-if-you-have-any-hope-for-the-rest-of-the-season win. “We really needed this,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “My nickname should be Must-Win Mike.” Cadarian Raines and Devin Wilson each scored 20 points for the Hokies (8-9; 1-4), who have lost four straight. “This team has a lot of heart,” said Virginia Tech coach James Johnson. “It just hasn’t come around for us.” Challenged to be a better leader – particularly more vocal - earlier in the week by Brey following Wednesday’s loss at Maryland when Notre Dame could do little right in letting a nine-point halftime lead slip away, Connaughton was the strongest, most determined, most focused guy on the floor for most of the second half. “Flat-out man,” Brey said of Connaughton. “You challenge him, he kind of wouldn’t let you lose tonight. Not surprising because that’s one guy that’s extremely dependable.” When Notre Dame saw a 10-point lead cut to two with just under 10 minutes remaining and someone needed to make a big shot to make the home crowd believe, Connaughton connected on a 3 to bump the Irish up five. When the Irish went with a small lineup down the stretch, if for no other reason than to empty the low post, spread the floor and put five shot-makers in positions to take and make shots, someone needed to play big and play old. With three freshmen all in the game, the 6-foot-5 Connaughton grabbed seemingly every defensive rebound and steadied the Irish ship against a Virginia Tech team that gained a whole lot of confidence by hitting seven of its first eight shots to open the second half. And when the game looked like it would get a whole lot interesting in the closing seconds, it was Connaughton who calmly stepped to the foul line and sank two free throws with 19.5 seconds left to push a five-point lead to seven. “It’s just another gear that I have inside me that I want to help this team in whatever way I can get that win,” Connaughton said. “That really pushed me through the second half.” Sunday also saw a solid effort from Irish freshman guard Demetrius Jackson. The former Marian standout insisted afterward that he had done nothing differently as of late in getting his game in gear. But he sure seemed different than the guy who was almost reluctant to take a big shot at a big time the last six weeks. Case in point, the end of the first half. With the Irish up 12 and the clock winding toward zero, Jackson confidently stepped into a 3-pointer from out front and gave the Irish a 15-point lead with 0.8 seconds remaining. “The look was wide-open and I had the ball in my hands so I wanted to get it up before the clock ran out,” Jackson said. “I just want to do whatever I can on both sides of the floor to help my team.” Jackson played a near-perfect first half. He made all three of his shots from the field, including both 3-pointers and all three free throws for 11 points and no turnovers. He finished with 13 points, which tied a career high. It was right before Jackson’s buzzer-beating jumper that the home fans were offered an unexpected treat. With the Irish up 10 and 95 seconds remaining, Brey looked toward the end of the bench and called for sophomore power forward Eric Katenda to make his collegiate debut. Myriad injuries, including the loss of vision in his left eye stemming from a freak incident on a basketball court before he ever enrolled at Notre Dame, had kept Katenda from doing anything in a game since he signed in the spring of 2011. Most recently, Katenda underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee in the fall. Lingering soreness cost him practice time earlier this month to the point where many wondered if he would ever see the floor. He’s been so good the last two weeks – probably one of the longest stretches of good health since he’s been on campus – that Brey decided to give him a chance. At first, Katenda couldn’t believe it, then checked in and played the first minute – and committed the first foul – of his career. “I just wanted to get him in the game, man,” Brey said. “He has had unbelievable luck on the health side of it. He did a good job defensively on three possessions to end the half. “Stay healthy, let’s see what happens.” VIRGINIA TECH (8-9): Josh Van Zegeren 2-2 0-0 4, Christian Beyer 0-0 0-0 0, CJ Barksdale 5-6 0-1 12, Adam Smith 0-2 0-0 0, Devin Wilson 7-10 5-7 20, Cadarian Raines 8-15 4-7 20, Will Johnston 1-2 0-0 3, Jarell Eddie 1-5 0-0 2, Trevor Thompson 1-4 0-0 2, Marshall Wood 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 25-48 9-15 63. NOTRE DAME (11-7): Austin Burgett 0-2 2-2 2, Garrick Sherman 3-7 2-3 8, Eric Atkins 5-16 1-3 12, Demetrius Jackson 3-7 5-5 13, Pat Connaughton 7-14 3-3 21, VJ Beachem 0-2 0-0 0, Katenda 0-0 0-0 0, Zach Auguste 4-4 0-2 8, Steve Vasturia 2-6 0-0 6. Totals 24-58 13-18 70. Halftime — Notre Dame 39-24. 3-Point Goals — Virginia Tech 4-11 (Barksdale 2-3, Wilson 1-2, Johnston 1-2, Eddie 0-1, Wood 0-1, Smith 0-2), Notre Dame 9-28 (Connaughton 4-9, Jackson 2-4, Vasturia 2-5, Atkins 1-8, Burgett 0-2). Fouled Out — Burgett. Rebounds — Virginia Tech 35 (Raines 6), Notre Dame 30 (Connaughton 8). Assists — Virginia Tech 12 (Wilson 7), Notre Dame 14 (Atkins 4). Total Fouls — Virginia Tech 19, Notre Dame 18. A — 8, 574-235-6153 Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Notre Dame guard Steve Vasturia (32) pushes the ball up the court off a turnover during men's NCAA college basketball game on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER