Pat Connaughton leads Irish hoops to another lopsided win

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Confidence that something special was about to unfold for a Notre Dame men’s basketball program whose magical moments were so few and far between last season never wavered for senior captain Pat Connaughton.

Connaughton glanced at the regular-season schedule in the fall and knew that no matter what might happen in November and into December, he was headed home to Massachusetts on Tuesday morning following 13 games in 39 days to start his final collegiate season.

What Connaughton had no idea of was what the Irish record might be when he walked out of Purcell Pavilion for a four-day break following Monday’s 91-66 victory over Northern Illinois.

Or did he?

Could these Irish do what last season’s group couldn’t do and protect their home floor? Get confident away from home? Feel good about Christmas break this time around after feeling like it was all falling apart last year?

Yes on all counts.

The win was the eighth straight for an Irish team that has rocketed from nowhere to No. 16 in the national polls. It improved their record to 12-1, one win off the pace Connaughton believed months ago that Notre Dame could set.

Perfection was no pipe-dream.

“I don’t know if I would have said it publicly but it’s something that we had a belief in ourselves and something that we always thought we could do,” Connaughton said. “To be quite honest, we’re hungrier, because we think we should be 13-0.”

The lone loss to Providence (75-74 on Nov. 23) drives Notre Dame to be better every day in practice, and then be really good on game nights. The Irish really have been.

As everything disintegrated into a 15-17 record a year ago, the Irish never could corral confidence. Now they come to work every game and get a little more confident, have a little more swagger. It’s something that coach Mike Brey didn’t think was possible so early. But it’s now there in bunches.

“I thought we’d be good,” Brey said. “We’re a little ahead of schedule. I didn’t know that we’d be pounding people.”

Notre Dame entered Monday’s game ranked third in the nation in scoring margin (+25.2). The two teams it trailed? Top-ranked Kentucky and No. 2 Duke. The Irish are 10-0 at Purcell Pavilion. Not only do they feel they’re on to something special, but so does Northern Illinois coach Mark Montgomery, whose team fell to 4-5.

“There’s a reason why Notre Dame is in the top (16) in the country,” he said. “I told coach Brey that they’re definitely going to hang a banner and have a heck of a season.

“Notre Dame is just that good right now.”

Forward Darrell Bowie led the Huskies with 15 points.

Connaughton again was a major reason why the Irish again made it look so easy. He scored a season-high 21 points and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds, his second-straight double double, fifth of the season and 12th of his career.

“We’re spoiled watching him, and I’m spoiled coaching him,” Brey said. “He’s the same every day.”

Connaughton felt there were too many nights last year when he let his rebounding numbers slide. And he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in defensive rebounding. But there were games of grabbing only three or four boards.

He’s gone for 14 and 10 the last two.

“It’s just a matter of attacking the glass,” he said. “I kind of expect that rebound total every night, and it’s just a matter of going and getting it.”

On Monday, he added an 8-for-12 effort from the field, 5-of-9 from 3, to go with his board work. As has been the case much of the first six weeks of the season, the Irish got it from all areas, and from all contributors. Five Irish scored double figures for a team that finished with 19 assists.

Sophomore V.J. Beachem returned after missing five games with a plantar fascia tear in his right foot. There was a chance that he could have returned for Saturday’s win over Purdue, but he was sore that morning after practicing two straight days. Beachem suffered the injury in practice the afternoon of Dec. 2. He returned like he had been in the rotation all along with eight points in 11 minutes.

“It felt good,” Beachem said of his healed injury, which occurred with no previous warning or soreness or any other indicator. “I was really excited to get back, especially seeing how much fun they’re having. It was great to be back out there.”

Notre Dame arrived leading the nation in field-goal percentage (55.3), and then made 58.9 percent of its shots against Northern Illinois. The Irish scored 40 points in the paint and had four dunks to give them 54 in 13 games. But it didn’t seem as easy as it did two nights earlier in blowing past Purdue by 31 points.

This one was going to be a grind, but the Irish just kept grinding, and making shots, grinding, and defending, grinding and working.

“There’s a lot of ways that we can put numbers on the board,” Brey said. “The thing is, you kind of let them figure it out a little bit. It’s a group that you don’t want to over-coach.”

Notre Dame never trailed and led by as many as 32 in winning by 20-plus points for the 10th time this season. No team in the country – not even mighty Kentucky – has as many lopsided wins.

“We’re hungry, man,” said junior Zach Auguste, who made all seven of his shots from the field for 16 points to go with eight rebounds. “We’re playing with nothing in our way, no chip on our shoulder. We’re just playing and having fun doing it.”

The Irish are off the rest of the week for Christmas before convening back on campus Saturday. Notre Dame closes non-conference play at home Dec. 30 against Hartford. The start of that game has been pushed back 30 minutes to 7:30 p.m. to avoid any conflict with the Notre Dame football team's Music City Bowl game against LSU.

“I’m really proud of how we’ve handled this first segment,” Brey said. “We’ve gotten more confident. We’ve gotten to understand each other.

“The one thing I did tell them is I need more for them when they come back, because we are in ACC regular-season mode.”

NORTHERN ILLINOIS (66): Darrell Bowie 5-11 5-6 15, Jordan Threloff 0-4 3-6 3, Aaric Armstead 3-7 0-2 7, Anthony Johnson 2-7 0-0 5, Michael Orris 1-4 0-0 3, Pete Rakocevic 5-8 0-0 10, Aaron Armstead 4-6 1-2 13, Travon Baker 1-6 0-0 3, Chuks Iroegbu 1-1 1-3 3, Keith Gray 0-0 0-0 0, Marin Maric 0-1 4-4 4. TOTALS: 22-55 14-23 66.

NOTRE DAME (91): Zach Auguste 7-7 2-4 16, Demetrius Jackson 6-9 3-6 16, Jerian Grant 2-9 6-7 11, Pat Connaughton 8-12 0-0 21, Steve Vasturia 4-8 0-0 10, Austin Torres 2-2 0-0 4, V.J. Beachem 2-4 2-2 8, Matt Farrell 1-2 0-0 3, Eric Katenda 0-1 0-0 0, Austin Burgett 0-0 0-0 0, Matt Gregory 0-0 0-0 0, Martinas Geben 0-1 0-0 0, Bonzie Colson 1-1 0-0 2. TOTALS: 33-56 13-19 91.

Halftime score: Notre Dame 48-35. 3-Point Goals: N. Illinois 8-21 (Aaron Armstead 4-6, Aaric Armstead 1-2, Johnson 1-3, Orris 1-3, Baker 1-4, Rakocevic 0-1, Bowie 0-2), Notre Dame 12-28 (Connaughton 5-9, Beachem 2-3, Vasturia 2-5, Farrell 1-1, Jackson 1-3, Grant 1-7). Rebounds: N. Illinois 30 (Bowie, Threloff 5), Notre Dame 36 (Connaughton 10). Assists: N. Illinois 12 (Baker 4), Notre Dame 19 (Grant 6). Total Fouls: N. Illinois 16, Notre Dame 15. Fouled out: none. Technical: N. Illinois Bench. A: 7,471.

Notre Dame senior Pat Conanughton had another double double for points and rebounds in another Irish win Monday at Purcell Pavilion. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)