Notre Dame men's hoops goes small to beat Miami

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – When the basketball court is as open and inviting as it was in Saturday’s second half, and there’s no big men anywhere around, that’s when Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant becomes even more dangerous and dominant.

The Purcell Pavilion floor opened nearly midway through the second half after the Irish downsized their lineup and Grant became the best player on it as No. 12 Notre Dame wiped out a 12-point deficit with 15:06 remaining for a 75-70 victory over Miami (Fla.).

Busting loose from an extended shooting slump, he was 8-for-28 from the floor the previous three games, Grant scored a game-high 23 points on 8-of-10 shooting. He also added a game-best eight assists in 38 minutes. It was one of the few times during league play that he hadn’t been hounded and harassed from start to finish.

Once Grant got going, so did his teammates.

“The guys looked for me to make plays,” said Grant, who had 13 points and five assists in the second half. “When they knock down shots, it gives me confidence to know (the defense is) not going to help off those guys, and I can get into the lane and focus on my shot.”

Needing to have something go right offensively after laboring to 29 first-half points, the Irish leaned on a new lineup that delivered frighteningly efficient results. Playing freshman Bonzie Colson in the post or trying to get something out of Zach Auguste, who returned after missing Wednesday’s game against Georgia Tech to concentrate on academics, simply wasn’t going to work against the Miami size.

It was time to go with all guards - Grant and Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia and Pat Connaughton, who really plays more like a small/power forward and sixth man V.J. Beachem. That group only occasionally plays together in practice but had worked more in the last few days.

“Before then, never,” Beachem said. “But I like the lineup.”

No Irish stood taller than the 6-foot-8 Beachem as the home team rode that lineup during a second half in which it went the final 15:32 without a single substitution.

“It’s a fun way to play,” Vasturia said. “Everyone can handle the ball and shoot and it creates a bunch of mismatches.”

Those five, especially Grant, simply carved up the Hurricanes with an offensive efficiency that led to open shot after open shot, big shot after big shot. The 3s started falling. The cuts off the ball multiplied. The easy looks arrived. The Irish finally found a rhythm and rode that wave to the win.

Notre Dame shot 57.1 percent from the field, 46.7 percent from 3 and scored 46 points in the second half.

“Once we pass the ball around, we know we’re going to get a good look,” Grant said. “There are five shooters out there, so we feel like we’re going to know it down.

“Offensively, once we get in a rhythm, we don’t worry about it.”

Defensively, the guard-heavy lineup also helped. With no Irish big in the mix to read and react to what the Hurricanes were doing, every assignment was switched. That kept Notre Dame from getting muddled up on ball screens, which was a real problem for a long stretch.

“We won the game,” coach Mike Brey said. “’cause we were consistent defensively.”

Before anyone in the sellout crowd really could comprehend what had happened, the Irish had flipped being down a dozen to being up seven in less than 12 minutes.

Beachem delivered 13 points, Vasturia added 11 and Connaughton and Jackson, 10 each. Connaughton also grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds for the fifth double-double of the season, 12th of his career.

The Irish improved to 17-2, 5-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Barely halfway through January, the Irish already have more overall wins than last year and are one shy of matching last year’s total for league success.

“Man, I am so proud of my team,” Brey said. “What a special group we have. They show signs of a being a special team.”

The second half has historically been Notre Dame’s time to shine, but not Saturday. The Irish returned from intermission to miss their first six shots, which dropped them into the 12-point deficit. That tied the largest of the season.

The home team finally woke up.

Notre Dame connected on four-straight 3-pointers – it had been 2-of-16 before the blitz – to get it within five. Beachem hit two 3s in the burst. And when Vasturia tossed in a bank shot off a Grant feed that capped a frenzied scramble for the loose ball, the Irish had their first lead, 52-50, with 9:31 left.

“Huge play by Jerian getting on the floor,” Vasturia said. “He found me and I was able to toss one in.”

Miami coach Jim Larranaga had counseled his club in the days leading into the game that it would not be the same as playing against Duke and big man Jahlil Okafor. The Hurrcianes (12-5, 2-2) eventually had to go small to keep the Irish guards from getting going. When they couldn’t, a league road win slipped away.

“We knew they were going to play the five guards,” Larranaga said. “We knew we would have to defend that. It worked in the first half, but wasn’t quite as effective in the second.”

As efficient as the Irish guards were on offense, Jackson quietly handcuffed Miami guard Angel Rodriguez. Like with Grant, the way Rodriguez plays gives his team the confidence to compete. Such was the case earlier in the week when he went for 24 points, five assists and five steals in a victory at No. 4 Duke. But on Saturday, Rodriguez was given next to nothing by Jackson. His constant and consistent pressure rattled Rodriguez into 1-of-10 shooting for four points with four assists.

“Demetrius Jackson took that as a big-time challenge,” Brey said. “Rodriguez has given a lot of people the blues. He never got going.”

Word filtered out from Notre Dame about three hours before tip that Auguste would be back in uniform and would play Saturday. He remained on campus during Wednesday’s game at Georgia Tech to deal with academic issues.

At that point, there was no timetable for when – or even if – he would return.

Auguste spent the first 4:07 on the bench before checking in. He finished with four points and four rebounds in nine minutes.

“He handled his business and did what he had to do,” Brey said. “It’s been an interesting week for him.”

Former Notre Dame standout Tommy Hawkins was honored at halftime with induction into the school’s Ring of Honor. The 78-year-old Hawkins spent Friday at Memorial Hospital suffering from apparent dehydration after traveling to campus Thursday from his home in Southern California.

Hawkins was able to attend the halftime ceremony and offered almost as many thank-yous during his five minute speech as he grabbed career rebounds. Hawkins remains the top rebounder in school history (1,318).

Hawkins then joined Brey for the post-game alma mater.

Notre Dame returns to action Thursday at Virginia Tech. The Irish are 2-0 on the road in league play.

MIAMI (12-5): Tonye Jekiri 4-9 0-0 8, Deandre Burnett 0-0 0-0 0, Davon Reed 3-6 0-0 9, Sheldon McClellan 6-13 3-3 17, Angel Rodriguez 1-10 1-2 4, Ja'Quan Newton 6-9 4-6 16, Joe Thomas 0-0 0-0 0, James Palmer 3-3 3-4 11, Manu Lecomte 1-4 0-0 3, Omar Sherman 0-1 0-0 0, Ivan Cruz Uceda 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 25-57 11-15 70.

NOTRE DAME (17-2): Bonzie Colson 1-3 2-2 4, Demetrius Jackson 4-10 1-2 10, Jerian Grant 8-10 5-6 23, Pat Connaughton 3-10 2-2 10,Steve Vasturia 5-8 0-0 11, Austin Torres 0-0 0-0 0, V.J. Beachem 5-11 0-0 13, Zach Auguste 1-3 2-2 4. Totals 27-55 12-14 75.

Halftime--Miami 30-29. 3-Point Goals--Miami 9-22 (Reed 3-4, Palmer 2-2, McClellan 2-6, Lecomte 1-2, Rodriguez 1-7, Sherman 0-1), Notre Dame 9-28 (Beachem 3-7, Grant 2-3, Connaughton 2-8, Vasturia 1-4, Jackson 1-6). Fouled Out--Reed. Rebounds--Miami 32 (Jekiri 13), Notre Dame 33 (Connaughton 11). Assists--Miami 15 (Newton 5), Notre Dame 17 (Grant 8). Total Fouls--Miami 13, Notre Dame 10. A--9,149.

Miami’s Deandre Burnett (1) gestures after a call that involved Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant (22) Saturday, January 17, 2015, during the Notre Dame-Miami men's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ