Good time for Notre Dame to answer Virginia challenge

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Twenty minutes of excellent effort and execution last February on the home floor of the team that would eventually win the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles left Notre Dame feeling good about itself.

An Irish team that had won two of its previous three league games had done enough in the first half to go to the locker room tied at 30 against a Virginia team that had its way with Notre Dame in South Bend a month earlier.

This time, the Irish felt it was going to be different. All they had to do was deliver another solid 20 minutes.

“We were pumped,” said junior forward Austin Burgett. “We were like, ‘Yo, we’re in this game. We’ve got this.’ We were playing great.”

Nowhere near great enough. Virginia returned in the second half and tightened the screws on its pack-line defense. When it did, Notre Dame had no answer. The Irish couldn’t make an open shot and couldn’t take care of the ball. They just couldn’t do much of anything.

That halftime tie disintegrated into a 25-point Virginia lead thanks to a devastating 25-0 scoring run that left Notre Dame scoreless for nearly nine minutes. The run topped out at 30-2. Afterward, coach Mike Brey termed the blitz a “nuclear explosion.”

It ended with another lopsided Irish loss, 70-49.

“We,” Burgett said, “got killed.”

Redemption has rarely been part of the rally-cry this winter for No. 13 Notre Dame, which has won 11 straight games and is off to a 15-1 start, 3-0 in ACC play. The Irish have often worked not by remembering all that went wrong last season when they finished 15-17 and 6-12, but with the goal this time around of making everything right.

Still, part of the preparation for Saturday’s sold-out home game against No. 3 Virginia (14-0, 2-0), hinges on remembering just how non-competitive one team was in the two meetings last season.

The first time the teams met as conference colleagues last January, the game was never tied and Notre Dame never led. Virginia led by as many as 24 and seemed well on its way to handing Brey his most lopsided loss in 15 seasons as head coach had Tony Bennett not pulled the plug on his starters late in the second half. The Cavaliers won by 15, but it seemed more like 25.

“They came in here and beat us better in our home gym than they beat us in their gym,” said senior captain Pat Connaughton. “We had a decent run in the first half in their gym and they came out and whacked us the second half.”

When Notre Dame pounded Purdue by 31 points last month at the fourth-annual Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis, Boilermakers coach Matt Painter said how the Irish took his team’s spirit. Brey can relate. Virginia did the same to Notre Dame both times last season.

If the Irish aren’t really good Saturday, it will happen again.

“Virginia was the one matchup we had no answers for,” Brey said. “It was the one team in the league we weren’t competitive with. It was like a junior varsity versus the varsity. They owned us.”

To remind themselves of that, the Irish gathered Wednesday at Connaughton’s off-campus residence to watch tape of last year’s wipeouts.

“They,” Brey said of his players, “certainly remember the thumpings we took last year.”

Still soaring following Monday’s victory over No. 18 North Carolina in its first-ever victory in Chapel Hill, N.C., Notre Dame might be tempted to put it on cruise control. The Irish are back at home, where they’re 12-0, they’re flirting with a top 10 ranking, they’re in first place in the league and no team in the country has as many wins (15). They feel good.

A Virginia visit wipes any thoughts about feeling satisfied off the board. In many ways, this is the perfect league opponent at the perfect time for Notre Dame. Anything less than a full 40 minutes – not 20 – and those good vibes vaporize.

“We definitely owe them,” said junior power forward Zach Auguste. “We’re hungry. We’re determined.

“We want to show them what we really can do.”

Pro potential

Thirteen seasons have passed since Notre Dame last had a player selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Fourteen have passed since a former Irish was a lottery pick.

Senior guard Jerian Grant has a chance to snap both those streaks as his final year progresses.

“He’s really trending up,” Brey said. “With each week, the momentum from him from that league is, ‘Wow, he really does do some things that translate.’”

Brey seemingly went out on a limb last month during his weekly radio show when he deemed Grant, who currently leads the Irish in scoring (17.3) and assists (6.3), an NBA lottery pick. That’s something the program hasn’t had since Troy Murphy went No. 14 to the Golden State Warriors in 2001. The last Irish player taken in the first round happened the following year with Ryan Humphrey going No. 19 to Utah.

Brey’s not shy about going there with Grant.

“I would not be shocked if he plays his way into that territory,” he said. “The next level’s very excited about him.”

NBADraft.net, which offers updated mock drafts of both rounds of the June draft, has Grant slotted as the No. 18 pick of the first round to the Chicago Bulls. Grant started the season as a mid-second round pick on the web site and has steadily climbed up the draft board.

Brey has been told that after everything shakes out in the spring, Grant could be the most complete guard in the draft.

Interest in Grant and his skills will intensify in league play. Former Notre Dame coach Matt Doherty attended Monday’s game at North Carolina while scouting for the Indiana Pacers. One of the main reasons for him to see the game was to see No. 22.

“There’s a great buzz about him,” Brey said. “It will only pick up.”

Excellent Anderson

Two Irish — Auguste and sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson — have set themselves up to make serious runs at league most improved player honors. But the leader in the clubhouse as January unfolds might be Virginia junior guard Justin Anderson.

A sixth man who played 21.5 minutes a game last season, Anderson starts and averages 29.1 minutes. He leads the Cavaliers in scoring (15.1) and is fourth in rebounding (4.9). He’s shooting a league-best 56.7 percent from 3 and has 21 more 3-pointers (34-13) than any teammate.

He’s the guy on maybe the best team in the ACC.

Anderson averaged 7.8 points and 3.2 rebounds last season.

“Their toughness all radiates first off him,” Brey said. “There is a confidence and there is a, ‘I’ll make the big shot and make the big play’ about him that every team needs that’s going to get an NCAA bid or play for a league championship.”

With the Cavaliers down by four and 20.6 seconds remaining in the first overtime Saturday at Miami (Fla.), Anderson made three free throws to make it a one-point game. Down three with 12.1 seconds remaining, he connected on a wing 3 to force a second overtime before Virginia won.

“He’s a fearless guy,” Brey said.

Zach Auguste and Notre Dame had two tough games last season against Virginia. Both ended in lopsided losses.SBT File Photo