Even with big ACC win, Irish men's hoops team embraces process

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It was a night that could have served as a strong statement moving forward in the Atlantic Coast Conference for the No. 25 Notre Dame men's basketball team.

Opening league play Saturday at home against a Florida State team that has been one of the most consistent in the league for nearly a decade, Notre Dame kicked everything into a gear it simply didn’t have last season to run away with an 83-63 victory.

The win put the Irish (10-1; 1-0 ACC) atop the league standings, a place that was a rumor much of last season when they bounced around near the basement while going 6-12. But it also was just another game for the Irish, one that carried no additional meaning because it was the first of 18 in a league that got the best of them last season.

“It was more of we came out and played our brand of basketball,” said senior captain Pat Connaughton. “I don’t know how much of a statement it might be because it was one league win.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”

The Irish worked over the Seminoles by outworking them. They moved the ball, made the extra pass, dug in and defended, made shots, gang-rebounded and weathered runs. Everything that good teams, really good teams, do. What this team believes it can do. It was clinic-like.

That’s enough of a statement for them in mid-December.

“We want to play up to our own expectations, not what anybody else thinks,” Connaughton said. “We’ve tried to be the best we can be.”

Just doing that has said a lot. Notre Dame jumped into the national rankings for the first time in 13 months a week ago. A climb a couple spots up the rankings ladder likely comes Monday when the new polls are released. The Irish have won six straight games, their longest success streak since 12 straight early in the 2012-13 season.

“It’s just good to be 1-0 (in the ACC), man,” coach Mike Brey said. “We’re not about any statements. Let’s just act like we’ve been there and come back humble on Wednesday and try and get better.”

Saturday was yet another step in a long process that the Irish believe can take them back to the NCAA tournament. They wanted to protect home court early in the year. They have. They wanted to show well against Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They did. They wanted to start ACC play on a solid note. Done.

“When you’re playing this way and winning games while you’re improving, it doesn’t get much better,” Connaughton said. “It’s something we’ve been building through the offseason, something that we’ve been building through the first 10 games and it’s something that we needed.

“Everyone’s bought in.”

Excellent end

A sideline out of bounds set installed hours earlier allowed the Irish to end Saturday’s first half in fine fashion.

Sophomore guard Steve Vasturia inbounded to junior power forward Zach Auguste, who was positioned at the top of the 3-point line. Auguste thought of throwing back to Vasturia for a wing 3. But when Florida State center Boris Bojanovsky overplayed the entry pass, Auguste turned over his left shoulder and saw nobody between him and the rim.

Auguste took two dribbles, took off from just inside the ACC logo in the lane and delivered a right-handed tomahawk dunk – not chop – with 3.3 seconds remaining and an eight-point lead.

“I saw the lane and my eyes were just tunnel vision,” he said. “I was going straight to the rim no matter what. I had to throw it down.”

Auguste had five of the team’s 10 dunks.

“I haven’t had this many in a while,” he said.

Notre Dame put that specific out-of-bounds set in Saturday afternoon. Auguste twice finished with dunks off it.

“I didn’t know we’d get that,” Brey said. “He just made a really good read and huge drive. To finish the half with that, what a great momentum play.”

Auguste’s dunk capped a 23-11 run over the final 9:15 of the first half. Intermission did little to slow the Irish. They jumped the lead to 13 in less than four minutes to start the second half and led by 20 less than halfway through.

Brey talked with the Irish on Friday, and then again at halftime, about being a cruel group in ACC play, one that could put away teams when they had the chance.

“I’m really proud that we did that,” he said. “I just didn’t want us uptight. I just want us going for it every time we play.”

The Irish led by as many as 28.

Board room

Sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson finished Saturday with a season-high seven rebounds, but he expected more.

“I told myself that I was going to get 10,” said the former Marian standout, who also added 18 points, four assists and three steals. “I fell a little short.”

When Jackson and fellow guard Jerian Grant are rebounding the way they did Saturday – Grant grabbed five – it offers the Irish even more opportunity to hold teams to one-and-done situations before getting out and getting something in transition.

“We’re not playing many more teams that have a 6-foot-6 power forward,” Grant said. “We’re going to play against a lot of big guys, so to make sure me and him stay on the glass is real important.”

Notre Dame was outrebounded, 37-36, for the second time this season. The Seminoles had 12 offensive rebounds, but managed only 11 second-chance points.

“Our team did a great job for the size they had,” Jackson said. “When we can put together a whole stop and help finish with a defensive rebound and get out in transition with great decision-makers, great shot-makers, great players, it makes the game a lot of fun.”

Bench boost

The final stats sheet said that all Irish starters played at least 26 minutes, and four of the five logged at least 35. They combined for 76 points, 32 rebounds and 11 assists. That would indicate that Notre Dame received next-to-nothing from its bench, right?

Well …

“I thought our bench was great,” Brey said. “It was limited, but they had big roles in this.”

Freshman power forward Martinas Geben was the first sub in the game and delivered a rebound follow dunk in the first half for his lone basket and rebound. He played six minutes. The energy from Penn product Austin Torres was key in an 18-2 run that busted it open late in the first half. He had four points and two rebounds in seven minutes. Junior Austin Burgett played eight minutes with no points or rebounds.

For Brey, it again was a case of doing a lot with a little.

“All three guys that we used off the bench really helped us,” Brey said. “Our key guys are going to play a long time in big games a lot of times.”

Baseline bits

• Notre Dame has trailed for a total of 5:41 – all Saturday against Florida State – in its last 129:25 minutes of game action. Against Michigan State, the Irish tied it with 4:25 remaining and never trailed for the rest of regulation or in overtime. Notre Dame never trailed in home wins over Fairleigh Dickinson and Mount St. Mary’s.

• How different was Saturday’s 20-point margin of victory in an ACC game? Notre Dame won its six league games last season by a combined 23 points.

• The Irish rank in the top 10 of eight categories in the latest NCAA statistics – first in field goal percentage (55.7), third in turnovers per game (9.0), fourth in assist/turnover ratio (1.72) and personal fouls per game (13.3), fifth in scoring margin (+24.6), eighth in scoring offense (84.9), ninth in 3-pointers made (94) and 10th for winning percentage (90.9).

• Guard Jerian Grant continues to lead the ACC in scoring (18.9) and assists (6.1).

• Saturday was the first time that Notre Dame won a league game by at least 20 points since beating St. John’s in a Big East game by 24 on March 5, 2013.

• Nine Irish have combined for 44 dunks this season, including a team-high 23 from Auguste.

• Notre Dame returns to ACC play to stay Jan. 3 at home against Georgia Tech. Until then, Notre Dame is tied for first place with North Carolina State, which opened conference play Dec. 6 with a victory over Wake Forest.

Pat Connaughton and the No. 25 Irish men's basketball team won't get caught up in feeling all happy about winning their ACC opener.AP Photo/JOE RAYMOND