Notre Dame men's basketball continues roll with win over Hartford

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Way back in summer, the names of two seasoned seniors were placed on a bulletin board inside the Notre Dame men’s basketball office as a way to maintain some semblance of sanity that everything this winter would work out.

As long as coach Mike Brey could look up every day and see the names of two of his guys — Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant — as two of the top returning players in the Atlantic Coast Conference, he could sleep and breathe and basically live a whole lot easier before his 15th season started.

A third name can be added to that list after Notre Dame closed non-conference play Tuesday with an 87-60 victory over Hartford at Purcell Pavilion.

Sophomore Demetrius Jackson has become another guy that the No. 14 Irish simply cannot do without for extended stretches.

The trio of Connaughton, Grant and Jackson combined for 49 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists as Notre Dame (13-1) ran its win streak to nine and overall home record to 11-0. The average margin of victory at home has been 28.2 points. Tuesday’s win was the sixth at home by at least 27.

“It’s just all the basketball we’ve played together this year,” Connaughton said of the connection among the three. “That’s helped us grow as a group.”

While another 40 minutes was the usual five-on-five affair, it was apparent early on that those three in Irish whites were operating at a different level, often on the same wavelength. They passed and cut and shot it as one. Connaughton and Grant used to do that with their former running buddy and three-time team captain, Eric Atkins, now playing professionally in Greece. Now they do it with Jackson, who may be relatively new to it all but is an old basketball soul who knows how to fit his game to what’s needed when it’s needed.

“We’ve got guys who can make shots,” said Jackson, who led everyone with 18 points and added five rebounds and four assists. “That really makes the defense respect us and guard us.

“Those guys make it easy for me. They slide to open spaces for me. I slide to open spaces for them. We really go for it.”

Just eight minutes remained in a game the Irish led by as many as 30 and the trio of Connaughton, Grant and Jackson had combined for as many points (47) as Hartford.

“When I substitute in practice, I don’t break that trio up much,” Brey said. “I leave those guys together ‘cause I think that is such a strength. That’s really blossomed.”

The foreign tour of Italy helped each of the three gain a comfort level with one another to the point where non-verbal communication — a look, a nod, a point — says a lot more than any verbiage.

“That all comes from the trust we have in each other,” Jackson said. “I may not know where he’s going to go, but I’m going to trust he’s going to be in the right spot. I’ll get it to the right spot.”

“We know each other really well,” Brey said. “We’ve played a lot together.”

The Irish have gone 37 days since their lone loss. The nation’s best-shooting team coming in (55.6 percent), the Irish shot 53.2 percent. It was the 13th time this season that they’ve hit at least half their shots from the field.

“Having Italy, it was going to be a quicker transition having Demetrius in there with me and Pat,” said Grant, who had 15 points, six assists and two rebounds. “It’s great. We’re unselfish. We move the ball really well. Nobody cares who’s scoring. I think we’re the best team in the country at making the extra pass.”

Coming off an eight-day layoff from game action that included four-plus days at home for Christmas, the Irish knew their head coach was going to demand even more from them as ACC play neared. League play, Brey reasoned, started Tuesday. The response was not ideal.

Notre Dame allowed Hartford to connect on five of its first six shots to dump the home team into a seven-point deficit less than five minutes in. It matched the largest home deficit of the season for Notre Dame, which also trailed Michigan State by seven earlier this month.

It barely registered as a blip on the Irish concern radar.

“I didn’t even really notice we were down,” Grant said. “I just felt like we had to keep playing. I knew we weren’t playing very well, but we knew it was coming.

“Our offense is something that’s eventually going to wear you down.”

The Irish eventually figured it out. When they did, the result was again one-sided. Brey cautioned last week that games soon weren’t going to be the parade of run-outs and dunks and highlight plays as much of this season has been. But it was again Tuesday, and three of the usual grand marshals led the way.

“I was really happy with the way the team responded,” Connaughton said. “There’s going to be teams in the ACC that are going to come in here and want to pull off an upset and we’re going to take care of business when it calls for it.”

Hartford left the building 7-6, but coach John Gallagher left impressed with the direction the Irish are headed in the coming weeks and maybe months.

“They’re a deep NCAA (tournament) team,” Gallagher said as he left the interview room. “Deep.”

When it wasn’t Connaughton or Grant or Jackson doing damage, the Irish rode the low-post reestablishment of junior Zach Auguste through the second half. Following a quiet effort of two points and two rebounds in 15 first-half minutes, Auguste erupted for 13 points and five rebounds after the break. That helped the Irish finish with 38 points in the paint and a 37-25 rebounding advantage.

“I wanted to find a way to impact the game,” Auguste said. “That was defensively. I had to do what I had to do and that was that. I was just patient and let it come to me.”

Notre Dame returns to ACC action Saturday at home against Georgia Tech. From here on out – 17 regular-season games – it’s league play.

“Man, we’re ready,” Auguste said. “We’ve been waiting for this.”

HARTFORD (60): Mark Nwakamma 7-15 0-0 16, Nate Sikma 3-7 0-0 7, Corban Wroe 2-4 0-0 6, Taylor Dyson 2-7 0-0 5, Yolonzo Moore II 5-8 0-0 12, Wes Cole 1-4 0-0 2, Justin Graham 2-4 0-0 5, John Carroll 3-6 1-2 7, Douglas Weir 0-0 0-0 0, Noah Arciero 0-0 0-0 0, Andrew Crowley 0-0 0-0 0, Mark Plousis 0-0 0-0 0, Jamie Schneck 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-55 1-2 60.

NOTRE DAME (87): Zach Auguste 6-8 3-4 15, Demetrius Jackson 6-10 2-2 18, Jerian Grant 6-11 0-0 15, Pat Connaughton 6-11 0-0 16, Steve Vasturia 2-6 0-0 5, Austin Torres 1-2 1-1 3, V.J. Beachem 3-7 0-0 6, Matt Farrell 0-1 0-0 0, Eric Katenda 0-1 0-0 0, Austin Burgett 1-2 0-0 2, Matt Gregory 0-1 0-0 0, Martinas Geben 0-0 1-2 1, Bonzie Colson 2-2 1-1 6. Totals 33-62 8-10 87.

Halftime--Notre Dame 43-28. 3-Point Goals--Hartford 9-26 (Nwakamma 2-2, Wroe 2-4, Moore II 2-5, Sikma 1-3, Graham 1-3, Dyson 1-5, Carroll 0-1, Cole 0-3), Notre Dame 13-30 (Jackson 4-6, Connaughton 4-8, Grant 3-5, Colson 1-1, Vasturia 1-4, Burgett 0-1, Farrell 0-1, Beachem 0-4).

Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Hartford 25 (Nwakamma 6), Notre Dame 37 (Auguste, Connaughton 7). Assists--Hartford 17 (Nwakamma 5), Notre Dame 15 (Grant 6). Total Fouls--Hartford 12, Notre Dame 9. A--6,803. | (574) 235-6153 | @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson, left, finished with 18 points in a home win over Hartford. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)