Demetrius Jackson helps Notre Dame pull away from Purdue

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS – A boulevard to the basket down the right side of the lane cracked opened, and there was no way that Notre Dame sophomore Demetrius Jackson was going to decline it.

And there was no question what the muscular and motivated 6-foot-1 guard was going to do once he got there early in the second half against Purdue in the annual Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

With no regard for Isaac Haas, a 7-foot-2 tree at the rim, Jackson dribbled hard to the hoop, rose and hammered home a right-handed dunk, part of a frightening 24-5 run that allowed the No. 21 Irish (11-1) to coast to a 94-63 men's basketball victory.

Jackson has seen and done a lot in his young basketball career, but he figured afterward that he had never before finished like that over someone that size.

“First time for everything,” Jackson shrugged as he meandered a back corridor of the arena after tying his career high with 22 points. “I just wanted to finish strong, have a play that kind of set the tone, ignite our team — and that’s just what I wanted to do.”

That he did.

Jackson’s slam was one of six in seven minutes for an Irish team that erupted the previous week for 10 dunks in the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against Florida State, also a breeze of a win. Just after Zach Auguste got the dunk-fest started with a two-handed flush off a roll down the lane and a pass from Jerian Grant, the Boilers had cut the Irish advantage to four (50-46).

But Auguste, who battled foul trouble while battling serious size in the post all day, responded with another dunk. And then Jackson had his turn, which basically marked the beginning of the end for the Boilermakers (8-4).

The play created the biggest buzz of the 14,753 in that stands. Did THAT guy just do THAT? To THAT guy? Yes and yes.

“His dunk was the exclamation point to kinda say, we’re probably going to win it today,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “He was really ready to play in this one.”

One of the struggles Jackson worked through last season was an inability to finish with strength at the rim. He would either come up short in his shot or fail to draw the foul. That hasn’t been an issue much of this season. At all. As soon as Jackson saw the daylight, he was like a running back charging to the end zone. Any middle linebacker at the goal line had no chance.

When Pat Connaughton followed with a dunk of his own off a Jackson feed, it necessitated a Matt Painter timeout to stop the hemorrhaging. Jackson stalked back to the Irish bench, flexing both arms and still a whole lot pumped up.

Notre Dame was nowhere near done with the run. Austin Torres delivered a two-handed slam off a Steve Vasturia drop pass. Grant then led a break in which he all but called for Martinas Geben to watch for an incoming offering. As the two converged on the rim, Grant gave Geben the ball, and he gave the rim another workout with a two-hand slam.

The Irish made it look that oh-so easy in the second half.

“It was fun,” said Grant, who had 10 points and a game-high nine assists. “This is the most fun I’ve had playing. The way we run the floor, the way we shoot, how unselfish we are, it’s really fun to play.”

Brey has coached some scary-lethal offensive teams during his time in South Bend, but the way this group exploded Saturday even took him by a bit of surprise. Once the Irish tightened their defensive intensity and were able to get some stops, everything else just flowed. And flowed. And flowed.

“We’ve had some explosive offensive teams, but we do it more powerfully,” Brey said.

Notre Dame shot 54.3 percent from the field, 62.5 percent from 3 and led by as many as 32 in a second half that produced 48 Irish points. It reached a point where an unselfish Irish team that finished with 18 assists started wondering not about getting theirs, but about how they could help someone else get theirs.

This one was a whole lot of fun for the guys in the gold jerseys, who ran their Crossroads win streak to three and season success run to seven straight. Six Irishy scored double figures, including a career-high 11 from Torres.

“We’re a perfect team, a complete team,” said Auguste. “Everybody brings something to the table. Whatever opportunity presents itself, we take care of it.”

With Auguste and Geben battling serious size and serious foul trouble — both fouled out — the Irish simply turned to the 6-5 Connaughton to handle most of the heavy lifting inside. Knowing he was needed even more on the backboard than usual, the team’s leading rebounder responded with 19 points and 14 rebounds, which tied his career best. It was his fourth double-double of the season and 11th of his career.

“What a man,” Brey said of Connaughton, who he considers “Old Reliable.”

All in a night’s work for someone still flying under the college basketball radar. Need him to get seemingly every loose ball off the backboard? He’ll do it. Hit some shots? Got it. Compete. Always.

“It’s just a matter of being tough,” Connaughton said. “I know my teammates have my back and I have theirs. It’s a matter of doing the tough, little things that we worked on all offseason.”

Afterward, Brey sat at the postgame press conference and asked for final stats sheet. Connaughton was there with the assist.

There was a whole lot to like on it.

“I’m really proud of our group,” Brey said. “We obviously were very ready to play. You saw what we can do offensively. When we get out and run and share the ball, we’re really explosive.”

Winless in the Crossroads (0-4), it was a hard fall for Purdue, especially after that massive Irish run.

“Notre Dame simply stole our spirit,” said coach Matt Painter, “and our guys gave in.”

Indiana beat 23rd-ranked Butler, 82-73, in the day’s first game. It was the first time the Bulldogs have lost in the annual December game.

Notre Dame returns to action Monday at home against Northern Illinois (4-4).

PURDUE (63): Jon Octeus 4-6 1-2 11, Vince Edwards 4-8 0-0 9, Kendall Stephens 1-6 0-0 3, Rapheal Davis 2-4 0-0 4, Isaac Haas 4-10 2-4 10, Bryson Scott 4-10 3-3 11, P.J. Thompson 0-2 0-0 0, Basil Smotherman 2-3 0-0 4, A.J. Hammons 3-8 5-6 11, Dakota Mathias 0-4 0-0 0. Totals 24-61 11-15 63.

NOTRE DAME (94): Demetrius Jackson 7-10 5-7 22, Jerian Grant 3-13 3-4 10, Pat Connaughton 6-15 4-6 19, Zach Auguste 5-8 0-1 10, Steve Vasturia 5-8 0-0 11, Austin Torres 4-6 3-4 11, Matt Farrell 0-0 0-0 0, Eric Katenda 0-0 1-2 1, Austin Burgett 1-2 2-2 4, Matt Gregory 0-0 0-0 0, Martinas Geben 1-1 0-0 2, Bonzie Colson 1-1 2-2 4. Totals 33-64 20-28 94.

Halftime--Notre Dame 46-39. 3-Point Goals--Purdue 4-14 (Octeus 2-2, Edwards 1-2, Stephens 1-5, Hammons 0-1, Thompson 0-2, Scott 0-2), Notre Dame 8-17 (Jackson 3-3, Connaughton 3-8, Grant 1-3, Vasturia 1-3). Fouled Out--Auguste, Geben. Rebounds--Purdue 31 (Edwards 7), Notre Dame 39 (Connaughton 14). Assists--Purdue 14 (Davis 4), Notre Dame 18 (Grant 9). Total Fouls--Purdue 24, Notre Dame 18. A--14,753.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson dunks past Purdue center Isaac Haas  during Saturday's game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.AP Photo/MICHAEL CONROY