Irish hoops all right, run by Knights

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Waves of upset weirdness that rolled through college basketball this weekend managed to skip Purcell Pavilion.

Notre Dame seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant made sure of it Saturday against Fairleigh Dickinson. Connaughton scored 19 points and Grant added 15. Each grabbed seven rebounds and played 35 minutes as the Irish never trailed, led by as many as 20 points and ran their record to 8-1 with a 75-57 victory.

A run of unlikely finals started Friday when Yale hit a last-second 3-pointer to win at defending national champion Connecticut. The upsets continued Saturday, which saw two ranked teams – No. 15 Miami (Fla.) and No. 17 Michigan – lose at home to Wisconsin-Green Bay and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the nation’s lone Division I independent.

Three more, all Notre Dame opponents – Georgia Tech, Purdue and Syracuse – also were beaten at home by South Carolina-Upstate, North Florida and St. John’s.

“It reminds you of the upsets that happened on us last year,” said Connaughton, part of last year’s team that lost at home to Indiana State and North Dakota State. “We immediately became hungrier. It never hurts to have all the motivation that you can to make sure we played Notre Dame basketball no matter what the name on the front of the other jersey.”

Three of those teams that lost Saturday – Miami, Michigan and Purdue — all won ACC/Big Ten Challenge games earlier in the week. That was cause for concern for Irish coach Mike Brey, whose team beat No. 19 Michigan State in overtime three nights earlier.

“I get tighter,” Brey said when he saw the scores prior to Saturday’s tip. “I get tight as a drum.”

Seeing a full moon rising in the eastern sky as he drove to the arena didn’t help his mood. He then got on the Irish a little more than usual before the game to make sure everyone was locked in and didn’t assume victory was an easy 40 minutes away.

Very little was easy, but a team that was willing to dig and defend when the shots weren’t falling helped avoid any idea of any upset.

“You don’t want to be another one of those teams that people are talking about – ‘How did they lose to them?’” Grant said. “We definitely came in with more focus, stayed focused the whole game and knew we were going to have to compete.”

And defend. Unlike many games in their home building, the Irish struggled to make shots early and missed often. That could have led to some slippage on the defensive end. Instead, the Irish continued to guard – they started the game with eight-straight stops – and never allowed the Knights (3-4) to find much of an offensive rhythm.

“Defense is something we try to hang our hat on,” Grant said. “It’s different for our team. It’s huge.”

“We defended well enough to not get bit tonight,” Brey said.

Irish junior power forward Zach Auguste was intent on bouncing back from a less-than-solid showing earlier in the week. Auguste grabbed only four rebounds and was a relative non-factor against the Spartans. He then delivered a second-double of the season and the third of his career with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

Auguste had more rebounds (five) less than seven minutes in than he snared three nights earlier. Brey met with Auguste before the game and told him to be the leading rebounder. He tied for top honors with FDU’s Xavier Harris.

“I struggled a little bit last game on both ends of the floor,” Auguste said. “My team needed me to do this and I just want to help the team. So…. I just had to get back to the simple things.”

Fairleigh Dickinson guard Matt MacDonald arrived as the team’s second-leading scorer at 14.7 points per game and went for a team-high 29 in Wednesday’s win at Princeton. MacDonald was scoreless in the first half before getting his first points on a wing 3 to cut the Irish advantage to 15 with 9:50 remaining.

MacDonald finished with nine points on three 3s.

How were the Irish able to limit MacDonald?

“Steve Vasturia. Steve Vasturia. Steve Vasturia,” Brey said of the New Jersey native going against a New Jersey team. “The guy is so solid. He is a one heck of a basketball player. He is so reliable defensively.”

Fairleigh Dickinson looked a whole lot like an earlier Irish opponent – Grambling State – in how it bled every 35-second possession and forced the home team to defend for long stretches. That limited Notre Dame from having many bust-outs after stops and kept the score down. Any time the Irish managed to get a few consecutive buckets, Knights coach Greg Herenda would grab a timeout to try and quiet everything down.

Herenda liked how his team competed and kept the Irish far from their 85.4 scoring average, but knew the Knights wouldn’t have enough against the Irish.

“They just have a lot of weapons,” Herenda said. “I’m just surprised how underrated they are nationally as a team. Eventually, people are going to find out what they found out against Michigan State. This is an NCAA-caliber team, for sure.”

Brey hasn’t been shy about dipping deeper into the bench if warranted and he did it again Saturday with freshman guard Matt Farrell late in the first half.

Farrell played eight total minutes with three DNP-CDS (did not play coach’s decision) the last five games, but checked in for Connaughton and played the final four-plus minutes. That gave the Irish a guard-heavy look, something they’re going to miss with sophomore V.J. Beachem down with a plantar fascia tear in his right foot.

Brey offered Farrell a few final words near the end of the bench just before the opening tip.

Farrell scored three points in a season-high eight minutes.

“We’ve got all those forwards; I just wanted to look at that,” Brey said of the guard-heavy package. “Maybe we need him on the floor some.”

FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON (3-4)Xavier Harris 3-7 0-1 6, Darius Stokes 1-1 1-3 3, Matt MacDonald 3-9 0-0 9, Darian Anderson 2-11 0-0 4, Mustafaa Jones 6-12 0-0 16, Malachi Nix 1-2 0-0 2, Earl Potts Jr. 1-4 2-2 4, Scott Kingsley 1-3 0-1 2, Marques Townes 5-11 0-0 11, Myles Mann 0-0 0-0 0, Mike Schroback 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 23-61 3-7 57.NOTRE DAME (8-1)Zach Auguste 4-7 3-6 11, Demetrius Jackson 3-8 2-2 8, Jerian Grant 6-11 2-2 15, Pat Connaughton 8-13 0-0 19, Steve Vasturia 2-6 6-7 10, Austin Torres 1-1 0-0 2, Matt Farrell 1-1 1-2 3, Eric Katenda 0-2 0-0 0, Austin Burgett 2-3 0-0 4, Matt Gregory 0-1 1-2 1, Martinas Geben 0-0 0-0 0, Bonzie Colson 0-1 2-4 2. Totals 27-54 17-25 75.Halftime--Notre Dame 32-22. 3-Point Goals--Fairleigh Dickinson 8-20 (Jones 4-6, MacDonald 3-6, Townes 1-2, Potts Jr. 0-1, Kingsley 0-1, Anderson 0-4), Notre Dame 4-17 (Connaughton 3-6, Grant 1-4, Burgett 0-1, Jackson 0-2, Vasturia 0-4). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Fairleigh Dickinson 30 (Harris 11), Notre Dame 41 (Auguste 11). Assists--Fairleigh Dickinson 10 (Anderson, Harris 3), Notre Dame 11 (Jackson 4). Total Fouls--Fairleigh Dickinson 23, Notre Dame 12. A--6,991.

Fairleigh Dickinson was no match for guard Jerian Grant and Notre Dame.AP Photo/JOE RAYMOND