Irish have another chance to be cruel competitors

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

For the first time since the grind of 13 games in 39 days commenced and final exams ended last week, a chance to get away and decompress enters the equation for the No. 21 Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

Junior power forward Zach Auguste is one of several players headed home on Tuesday morning flights, but any thought of what’s to follow with family and friends and four-plus days away can wait. There remains one bit of business – Monday’s home game against Northern Illinois (4-4).

For now, all that matters is another chance to compete.

“We’re excited to get back in the gym and play another game before we go home for Christmas,” Auguste said. “We’re just ready to get back on the floor.”

Notre Dame does so in the first of the season’s two Saturday-Monday turnarounds. Less than 48 hours after pounding Purdue (94-63) in the Crossroads Classic on Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Notre Dame (11-1) can extend its overall win streak to eight, its home win streak to 10.

A Saturday-Monday swing can be a drain. The back half of the turnaround becomes more of a mental than a physical test. Especially coming off a demanding week of academics. But not for this group. Not the way they’re playing.

Heavy legs aside, they could have gone heavy minutes Sunday.

“We’re just a team that loves to play basketball, man, and play our basketball,” Auguste said.

That brand of ball was downright scary when unleashed early in the second half against the Boilermakers. With just under 16 minutes remaining, Notre Dame held a four-point lead. The game could swing either way. Auguste was in foul trouble. The Boilers seemed set to make a statement.

Just over 10 minutes later, they had no idea what hit them.

Following a 29-7 run that featured six dunks in seven minutes, the Irish led by 26.

Back at home to start Atlantic Coast Conference play the previous Saturday against Florida State, coach Mike Brey counseled his team about being better in being cruel competitors this season. When they had the chance to put away opponents – quality opponents from power conferences – they had to do it decisively and dominantly.

Notre Dame led by as many as 28 in a 20-point victory over Florida State. The Irish led Saturday by as many as 32 and could have pushed it closer to 40 had Brey not pulled the plug on the starters late. Afterward, Boilers coach Matt Painter admitted that the Irish “simply stole our spirit.”

Notre Dame opens the week tied with top-ranked Kentucky (12-0) for most wins of at least 20 points. Both teams have nine. The Irish have won three games by at least 20 points, three by at least 30 and three by 40-plus.

Cruel indeed.

“We use that word a lot around our locker room,” said senior guard Jerian Grant. “When we get a six, seven, eight-point lead, we talk about coming back strong and being cruel.”

The Irish will carry that same mindset into Monday’s game. Forget about the checked bags and connecting flights and the chance to go home Tuesday for the first time since a brief break in the fall. There’s a game to play, and the Irish have plenty to be better at in it.

“It falls in line with what we’ve been thinking all year – take it one game at a time,” said senior swingman Pat Connaughton. “Christmas is right around the corner and we’re going home and all that good stuff, but we’ve got to have a good game Monday and do what we’re supposed to do.”

For all the highlights and hustle plays Saturday, concern areas were addressed during Sunday’s practice. Notre Dame didn’t get off to its usual solid start and was down by eight in the first five-plus minutes. That was a result of a defensive lapse here and another there. Of Purdue’s 14 first-half baskets, 10 came in the paint. When the Irish had to make it difficult, it was far too easy.

Notre Dame busted it open in the second half with offensive execution and efficiency, but the defense also key. If the Irish weren’t forcing nine turnovers the final 20 minutes, they were holding the Boilers to uncomfortable one-and-done possessions and 32.3 percent shooting.

“We’re a very good offensive team, but the defense is where it all starts for us,” Connaughton said. “That’s what we pride ourselves on and that’s where we can still improve on moving forward.”

The offense just hums along. Notre Dame continues to lead the nation in field goal percentage (55.3) and assist/turnover ratio (1.77). A +25.2 scoring margin is tied with Duke for second, behind only Kentucky. The Irish are fifth in the nation in scoring (85.7).

Someone else seemingly steps forward each game and gives the opposition trouble. Sophomore guard Steve Vasturia erupted for a career-high 19 points in the Dec. 9 victory over Mount St. Mary’s. Next time out against Florida State, Auguste went for a career-high 26. On Saturday, it was sophomore Austin Torres. The Penn product delivered a career-best 11 points off the bench, one of six Irish in double figures.

Notre Dame may get sophomore swingman V.J. Beachem back for Monday. He’s missed the last five games with a plantar fascia tear in his right foot suffered Dec. 2. The team’s sixth man, Beachem is averaging 8.4 points and shooting sizzling percentages from the field (57.1) and from 3 (55.6).

If he gets back in a groove, watch out.

“Who are you going to guard? Grant said. “Who are you going to help off of? Who are you going to double team?

“We have a lot of weapons that can do a lot of different things.”

Notre Dame forward Zach Auguste is having too much fun playing with the No. 21 Irish right now that he's not worried so much this week about getting home for Christmas.AP Photo/MICHAEL CONROY

WHO: No. 21 Notre Dame (11-1) vs. Northern Illinois (4-4).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Monday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: None. The game can be seen online at ESPN3 and WatchND.TV.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com/tnoieNDInsider.

WORTH NOTING: Northern Illinois trailed by 14 points at halftime, then allowed only 13 points in the second half before losing Friday in overtime at New Hampshire, 58-55. Aaron Armstead led the Huskies with 12 points, including the game-tying 3-pointer with 20 seconds remaining in regulation. … The Huskies are 0-4 on the road with losses also to DePaul, Eastern Illinois and Iowa. … Northern Illinois returns four starters off last year’s team that finished 15-17, 8-10 and in fourth place in the Mid-American Conference West Division. … Prior to last season, the Huskies won a combined 19 games the previous three. … They are picked in preseason to finish fourth in the six-team MAC West. … Monday caps a stretch of four road games in four cities over 10 days. The Huskies will have traveled some 2,400 miles. … Sophomore guard Dontel Highsmith, a former Dowagiac High School standout, will miss the season after suffering a second tear of his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in November. Highsmith first suffered the injury Dec. 31, 2013 late in a loss at Iowa State after he scored a game-high 19 points. The original injury occurred eight days after he earned MAC player of the week honors. The all-time leading scorer in Dowagiac history (1,969 points), the 6-foot-2 Highsmith averaged 10.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in 11 games last season. He averaged 29.1 points, nine rebounds and seven assists as a high school senior. … Senior guard Anthony Johnson is a transfer from Purdue and one of six transfers on the NIU roster. … Redshirt freshman Marin Maric played at LaLumiere School in LaPorte. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 3-1 and has won the last two, including a 108-62 victory on Dec. 8, 2007. The 46-point differential ranks eighth for largest margin of victory in Purcell Pavilion history. … Notre Dame is 9-0 at home this season with an average margin of victory of 28.7 points. … The Irish won by 31 points Saturday over Purdue at the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis. … This is the first of two Saturday-Monday turnarounds for the Irish. … Notre Dame closes non-conference play Dec. 30 at home against Hartford.

WORTH QUOTING: “We’re playing well and you just kind of want to bottle it.”

-Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.