Notebook: Notre Dame absorbs lopsided rebounding totals

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH — A post-game personal pizza probably tasted pretty good as Notre Dame senior captain Pat Connaughton sat in the corner of a cramped locker room early Thursday afternoon.

The final rebounding totals of an NCAA tournament second-round game against Northeastern might have made him a little sick to his stomach.

On Thursday, Northeastern won the battle of the boards by finishing with a 33-17 rebounding advantage. But Notre Dame won the battle on the scoreboard, advancing to meet Butler in Saturday’s third round following a 69-65 victory at CONSOL Energy Center.

The Irish already know they have to be better on the boards.

“It starts with a lot of effort, a lot of heart,” said sophomore guard Steve Vasturia. “We’ve got to block out. That’s when we’re at our best.”

Notre Dame wasn’t at its rebounding best Thursday, but it still managed to get that one key stop in the closing seconds.

“We’re showing people that we can be a really good defensive team when we need to be,” Vasturia said. “We got those big stops when we needed.”

Absorbing lopsided rebounding totals was quite common during the regular season for Notre Dame, which saw more of the same in postseason. Michigan State outrebounded Notre Dame by 17 in an Irish overtime win in December. Georgia Tech finished with a +15 rebounding advantage in Notre Dame’s double-overtime win. Two nights later, North Carolina outrebounded Notre Dame by 17, including a staggering 21 offensive rebounds. But again the Irish won.

Northeastern converted 13 offensive rebounds into 18 second-chance points.

Connaughton had one of the funkiest rebounding stat lines. Notre Dame’s leading rebounder at 7.4 per game with eight games of at least 10 rebounds coming in, Connaughton managed only one rebound – that on the defensive end in the second half — despite playing all 40 minutes.

“It’s just something that I need to focus on,” Connaughton said. “Other guys stepped up on the boards. It was just a matter of eliminating second-chance points and not getting pushed under. We’ve got to find a way to break contact and spin around them.”

Coach Mike Brey believes his captain is due for a big bounce-back effort.

“Connaughton promised me he’s going to be maniac on the board,” Brey said. “Or I get half of his Orioles contract.”

Connaughton signed a baseball contract with the Baltimore Orioles last summer, which included a signing bonus of $428,000.

New experience

For as much as the Irish have accomplished this season, Thursday was the first time anyone on the roster experienced an NCAA tournament win as an active player.

Guard Jerian Grant was on the 2011 team that beat Akron to open second-round play in Chicago, but he was sitting out that season to preserve a year of eligibility that has certainly come in handy this year.

Afterward, it was almost as if the Irish didn’t know how to react to winning.

“I made them be happy,” Brey said. “I did not want them disappointed. Like, we weren’t supposed to win by 15. This was going to be game situations.

“This is a great win.”

Brey’s message to the Irish had all to do with remembering how they opened Atlantic Coast Conference play the previous Thursday against Miami. That night in Greensboro, Notre Dame coughed up an 18-point lead in the second half before escaping.

“And then we got in gear,” Brey said. “I want us to think like that.”

Quick hands

One of the Irish keys to success this season has been the consistent ball pressure applied up and down and around the floor by sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson, who may have been at his ball-hawking best Thursday.

Jackson was able to reach in and force jump-ball situations three times against Northeastern. He finished with two blocks and two steals.

“I felt really focused on the defensive end,” Jackson said. “We didn’t have that defensive enthusiasm early, so I just tried to get out team going. That’s usually how we do it."

Jackson had to battle through blurred vision in his right eye following a collision with Zach Stahl while chasing a loose ball with 2:43 remaining. Jackson remained on the floor for several moments, then wandered to the bench for treatment. But there was no way he wasn’t going to play.

“I needed to be in there to help my team,” Jackson said. “No matter how I’m feeling, I’m just sacrificing for my team.”

A short(er) bench

A rotation that seldom stretched past seven during the regular season was sliced even shorter Thursday as Brey leaned even more on his starting five.

“I was there with timeouts just to get guys a rest,” Brey said. “I felt we had to ride our guys. I think we did that against Carolina in the second half.”

Eight Irish saw minutes in the first half, including Penn product Austin Torres, who delivered a key six-minute spurt of two points, one block and one assist. But when it came time to the second half — win or go home time — Brey rode his starters hard. Really hard.

V.J. Beachem played one minute in the final 20; Bonzie Colson was on the floor for two. Torres did not play. Other than that, it was all starters all the time.

Part of that is by design. Tournament timeouts are an extra 45 seconds (thanks to commercial breaks), which allowed Brey a chance to steal some additional rest for his main guys.

“Guys are really getting good recovery in the timeouts,” Brey said.

Connaughton and Grant played all 40 minutes. Jackson played 38. Vasturia went 37.

Family affair

Freshman forward Bonzie Colson was one of the few Irish with a direct connection to the Northeastern program.

Huskies coach Bill Coen served as an assistant coach for former head coach Al Skinner at Boston College. Also on that staff in the Heights was Colson’s father, Bonzie. The younger Colson knew well of Coen even before Thursday’s second-round matchup.

“I was happy to finally see him again,” said Colson, who delivered four points and two rebounds in seven minutes during Thursday’s game. “They recruited me a little bit. I went up there. It’s just good to see him again.”

Colson considered Coen, in his ninth season at Northeastern, as close as a family member.

“”He was kind of like an uncle for me,” Colson said. “I could always rely on him. I remember I used to get shots up with him in the gym. I’d go to his house on weekends.

“He was definitely a big part of my life.”

Colson’s father sat about 10 rows up behind the Irish bench holding an oversized cardboard headshot of his son.

Tourney tidbits

• Connaughton played in career game No. 136 against Northeastern. That tied the school record of most career games set by former guard Tory Jackson (2006-10).

• Tip times for Saturday’s third-round games were expected to be finalized early Friday morning after all second-round games had been completed.

• Playing the first game at an NCAA tournament site is nothing new for Notre Dame. The Irish were the first game in Spokane, Wash., in 2009 and the first game in New Orleans in 2010.

• Playing early was an adjustment for this year’s Irish, who played the final game of the night in last week’s quarterfinals and semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, while the championship tipped at 8:45 p.m. Thursday’s game tipped some nine and a half hours earlier than last week’s ACC semifinal game against Miami (Fla.).

Thursday’s game tipped at 12:19 p.m.

• Of the three No. 3 seeds that opened tournament play Thursday afternoon, Notre Dame was the only one to avoid an upset. Baylor lost to Georgia State while Iowa State was beaten by Alabama-Birmingham.

• Thursday was Notre Dame’s 34th appearance in the NCAA tournament. The Irish have an all-time record of 32-37.

• Notre Dame entered postseason play on a five-game win streak, the program’s longest since it won its last nine to end the 1986-87. Notre Dame advanced that year to the Sweet 16 before losing to North Carolina.

• The Irish tied their season low with two 3-pointers — one in each half. Notre Dame also allowed Northeastern only three 3s. The Huskies averaged 5.8 3s during the season and 8.6 while winning the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. | (574) 235-6153 | @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson, front, rolls on the floor after trying to stop Northeastern's Scott Eatherton (43) who shoots during the second half of an NCAA tournament second round college basketball game, Thursday, March 19, 2015, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)