Notre Dame men show signs of recovery

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND-Losing can be as contagious as the flu.

Heads hang easily. Confidence withers at the first sign of adversity. Small leaks in a defense can become gaping holes, allowing a flood of frustration.

Quarantine can’t keep the disease from spreading. Aggressive treatment is the only cure.

Trailing Boston College by nine early in the second half, Notre Dame’s men’s basketball team reached what coach Mike Brey called a “crossroads.”

Eric Atkins, the ultimate hero of the 76-73 overtime victory, recognized it as an opportunity.

“It’s all about working hard and competing,” said Atkins, whose 3-pointer gave the Irish their third Atlantic Coast Conference win in nine games. “When we went down nine, it was going to be on us. This group of guys had to make it happen. (Brey) wasn’t going to say anything magical on the sidelines that was automatically going to make us win.

“It was on us to come together and finally pull out a win.”

“Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing,” said Brey. “Even early in the second half when they had us down nine, I got on their backsides hard. We kinda had that look: ‘Feelin’ sorry; maybe it’s not our year.’

“I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! I need more competitors.’ We’ve got great kids. I thought they really rose to the occasion. It’s a dangerous cycle you can get in. We certainly needed to win a game. It was nice to win it in exciting fashion; to make a big play to win it.”

For a good part of the game, the Irish seemed like they were powered by propane — and the tank was precariously near empty. One stat to prove how methodical the pace of the game was: Fast-break points: Notre Dame 2, Boston College 0.

Remember, this was a battle of ACC bottom-feeders (BC is 2-6 in the league). It’s been a long time since the win over Duke put the Irish on top of the world. At that point, finishing above .500 (overall, the Irish are 12-10) didn’t seem as daunting a task as it does right now. Heck, back then, some folks actually had the audacity to slot Notre Dame in their make-believe NCAA bracket.

At this point, the NIT would be a grand reward.

The Irish are close enough to the ACC cellar to smell it. One good whiff and it’s obvious it’s a stench nobody likes.

Still, the bleeding had to stop somewhere. The Irish have to bottom-out before they can begin the climb back to respectability. Averting the embarrassment of a home loss to Boston College might be the jump-start the Irish need. Then again, somehow, they have to avoid a devastating Big Monday blowout at Syracuse.

This fragile group may not be able to withstand too many steps backward.

There were signs of recovery. With about two minutes left in regulation, big man Zach Auguste abandoned his soft-touch approach in the paint and went strong to the basket. On his way downcourt, he shared an attitude-changing verbal exchange with his chief adversary, Ryan Anderson.

“It’s being aggressive; trying to be consistent,” said Auguste, who added his exclamation point with 10 points and eight boards. “Just trying to help my team.”

Staying positive, staying focused on a goal, without the reward of victory, is the absolute test for a competitor.

“We’ve been struggling as a unit,” Auguste said. “We’ve focused on coming together as one team. That was our motto: Together.

“You work hard and have nothing to show for it, you have to keep fighting through it. We’ve gotta keep pushing. That’s what we did today.”

“A great saying (Brey) had for us this week: Those that work hard tend to make their own luck,” said Pat Connaughton, who had 17 points and nine boards. “We finally worked hard enough to get in a game where, things might not have been bouncing our way, but we were able to work hard to push through and get the win.

“Down the stretch, this looked like a game that would be hard to pull out. We’ve got guys on this team who are resilient. That’s what we’ve been doing all year, plugging through.”

The plugging is a process that can reveal a team’s character.

“It’s tough,” Atkins said. “Certain plays, you feel nothing’s going right for you. It really comes down to us coming together as a team, locking in, and getting a stop. It comes down to the defensive side of the ball. The offensive side of the ball hasn’t lost so many games. Today, we finally locked in.”

Hold that thought.

At least for a couple days. 574-235-6318

Notre Dame's Zach Auguste (30) is guarded tightly by Boston College's Eddie Odio (4) in the first half of Saturday's game at Purcell Pavilion. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)