Early burst allows Notre Dame to handle Boston College

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Frighteningly efficient on both ends for the first 15 minutes of Wednesday’s game against Boston College, No. 10 Notre Dame seemingly was on cruise control to an easy Atlantic Coast Conference win.

But nothing’s easy in league play in February, something the Irish learned a whole lot about in a sluggish and stagnant second half. Hot-shooting guard Olivier Hanlan helped bring the visitors within a half-dozen three times the final 2:20 as the Irish stayed patient and stayed poised.

The home team continued to make the plays and the shots and the free throws and got the needed stops to get back to their winning ACC ways, 71-63, at Purcell Pavilion.

“They made a little run, but at the end of the day, we weathered it and made the plays we needed to to finish it off,” said sophomore guard Steve Vasturia, who scored 17 points. “We might have had some slippage defensively, but they made some tough shots.”

Hanlan was unconscious in going for four-straight 3s and 14 points in less than three minutes. He finished with 28.

“He was hot,” said Eagles senior Aaron Brown.

When Hanlan’s third 3 brought the Eagles within six and 2:20 left, the Irish had an answer. A familiar answer.

Vasturia again delivered from the same spot – behind the 3-point line in front of the Irish bench – as he did the previous week to put away No. 4 Duke with just under two minutes remaining to bump the lead back to nine.

“It was good to kind of finish them off after they went on their run,” Vasturia said.

“Steve,” coach Mike Brey said, “is the ultimate cool customer.”

Still alone in second place in the ACC, Notre Dame never trailed in improving to 21-3, 9-2. No ACC team has as many league wins as the Irish.

Following Saturday’s lackluster effort and loss at unranked Pittsburgh, which snapped a five-game win streak, Notre Dame took a much-needed day off on Super Bowl Sunday before returning for two good days of practice. The emphasis was obvious – to be good the rest of the way, the Irish needed to be good on the defensive end. It was at the top of a February to-do list crafted by the Irish that ran seven deep.

Be.

Better.

Defensively.

Notre Dame then delivered three kills (three consecutive defensive stops) in the first 13 minutes. Piggy-backing that on some really good, efficient, offense allowed the Irish to bolt to a 25-point lead before fans were halfway through their first bucket of popcorn.

“It was good that we got a lead early and got off to a better start,” said Irish guard Jerian Grant, who had 17 points, seven assists and four steals. “We wanted to start playing defense better. Against Pitt, we really struggled defensively. Our main focus was getting stops.”

Tuned in and turned up on defense, the Irish also rolled on the other end. They ran. They moved the ball. They shared the ball. They made shots. They made it look easy. Scary easy. Boston College coach Jim Christian burned a couple timeouts to try and keep everything on track.

Boston College didn’t hit double figures 4:45 remained in the first half.

“The first 10 minutes what we were doing offensively was off the charts,” Brey said. “We combined it with really solid defense to give us a big cushion that we eventually needed.”

Needed because as easy as the first 15 minutes seemed in building the 34-9 lead, it might have been too easy. The final 25 were a grind.

“It got to 25 so fast you worry about concentration and focus a little bit,” Brey said. “I never expect a league game to be easy.”

The Irish made it look easy by never really pushing the panic button, even when the home crowd seemed a whole lot anxious as Hanlan kept hitting shots. The closer the Eagles got, the better the Irish seemed to be.

That’s the mark of a veteran team, maybe even a really good team. A special team. There were no long faces that the Irish advantage didn’t get to 20, only happy ones that league win No. 9 had been locked up.

“League games are hard,” Brey said. “We were really poised with it. This is a group that has been able to stay calm.”

Sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson saw his streak of five-straight games scored in double figures snapped, but he found another way to make a difference - on the backboard. Unable to get his offensive game in gear while chasing Hanlan all over the place, the 6-foot-1 Jackson grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds, including seven on the defensive end.

Jackson often inquires during breaks in games how many rebounds he’s accumulated. The stat matters to him. A lot.

“That’s a weapon we need,” Brey said. “It’s clear we’re not the best defensive rebounding team (ninth in ACC games) but we have a guard that can go get the ball like that, that really helps us.”

It was the two starters from Massachusetts who made sure the Irish got off to a rare good start.

Following an eight-point effort in 40 minutes against Pittsburgh, Pat Connaughton connected on four of his first five shots for 10 points in less than 14 minutes. His bucket allowed Notre Dame to open a double-digit lead – 16-5 – at the 13:55 mark. Junior power forward Zach Auguste also scored 10 points in an efficient first half around the rim. At one point, Connaughton and Auguste had combined for more points – 20 – than the entire Boston College team – 17.

“We focused on coming out of the gate,” Auguste said. “That’s something we lacked in the past, so coming out stronger out of the gate helped us.”

Auguste and Connaughton combined for the first 16 Irish points. Auguste led everyone with 12 points in a first half that saw Notre Dame shoot 55.2 percent from the field, 58.3 percent from 3.

Former Irish guard Alex Dragicevich played one scoreless minute for the Eagles (9-12, 1-8).

Notre Dame’s stretch of three games in seven days continues Saturday at No. 4 Duke, which won Wednesday at home over Georgia Tech.

BOSTON COLLEGE (63):Dennis Clifford 3-5 0-0 6, Dimitri Batten 2-6 0-0 5, Olivier Hanlan 11-16 0-0 28, Aaron Brown 4-14 3-6 13, Patrick Heckmann 1-7 0-0 3, Garland Owens 3-6 0-0 6, Eddie Odio 1-3 0-0 2, John Cain Carney 0-0 0-0 0, Alex Dragicevich 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-57 3-6 63.NOTRE DAME (71)Zach Auguste 7-11 2-4 16, Demetrius Jackson 1-4 1-2 3, Jerian Grant 4-11 5-8 17, Pat Connaughton 4-11 1-2 11, Steve Vasturia 7-9 0-1 17, V.J. Beachem 1-2 2-2 5, Bonzie Colson 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 25-50 11-19 71.Halftime--Notre Dame 41-25. 3-Point Goals--Boston College 10-26 (Hanlan 6-9, Brown 2-6, Batten 1-3, Heckmann 1-5, Owens 0-1, Odio 0-2), Notre Dame 10-21 (Grant 4-6, Vasturia 3-5, Connaughton 2-7, Beachem 1-2, Jackson 0-1). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Boston College 34 (Clifford 7), Notre Dame 31 (Jackson 10). Assists--Boston College 13 (Hanlan, Heckmann 4), Notre Dame 16 (Grant 7). Total Fouls--Boston College 14, Notre Dame 7. A--8,458.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia (32) drives on Boston College’s Dimitri Batten during Wednesday's game.SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ