Notre Dame men's hoops finds its cruel to close
Victories this season too often have seen the Notre Dame men’s basketball team treat opponents like a family member with their smartphone at the dinner table.
The Irish just couldn’t put them away.
That changed Tuesday at home against Stony Brook. It wasn’t that all five Notre Dame starters scored double figures or Zach Auguste had another double-double for points (season-high 23) and rebounds (game-high 11) or guard Demetrius Jackson delivered his first career double-double with 19 points and a career-high 10 assists that was most impressive.
It was the way the knockout punch was delivered to a good team during an 86-61 victory at Purcell Pavilion.
Notre Dame (6-2) enjoyed its best start and jumped to a double-digit lead the first 4:45. It led by at least 10 points four times the first 20 minutes. The Irish then let the Seawolves corner some confidence to start the second half, but like that — boom! — it was over.
These Irish finally found cruel.
“We really needed that,” Jackson said. “We had a slow start in the second half (but) we really had attention to detail, were sharp and kind of stepped on them and broke it open.”
Notre Dame (5-2) entered Tuesday’s game ranked ninth in the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference for scoring margin (+11.3). Some of that may stem from its two losses, but those (to Monmouth and Alabama) were by a combined three points. Notre Dame and Monmouth were tied with 32 seconds remaining; Notre Dame led Alabama by one with 28.6 seconds remaining.
The margin of victory in three of the last four Irish wins prior to Tuesday had all been by eight or fewer points. Notre Dame had too often let those teams — Illinois, Iowa, Milwaukee — flirt with the idea of a comeback instead of finishing it off when the opportunity arrived. On Tuesday, Notre Dame answered opportunity’s knock and finished Stony Brook.
Notre Dame did it on both ends after Stony Brook had slid back within four (46-42) with 15:29 remaining. The Irish went to their zone defense for seven second-half possessions. The Seawolves missed six shots against it. Jackson also started “running the building” in the words of Irish coach Mike Brey, and the offense clicked. Really clicked.
Everybody did a little of everything — V.J. Beachem for a few 3s, Steve Vasturia on a backdoor basket cut, Auguste with fade jumpers — in a 25-4 run that featured 13 unanswered points. Barely nine minutes after it seemed destined to become a one-possession game, the Irish were up 25 and humming toward 46 second-half points on 59.3 percent shooting.
“We’ve been in that situation before, but teams would come back,” Auguste said. “Us not being lackadaisical or letting them come back, we did what we had to.”
Which was what?
“Just having that mentality,” Auguste said. “Holding each other accountable and fighting through adversity.”
Even as Tuesday’s game became decidedly blowout-worthy, Brey stayed with his core seven for all but the final 3:27 before dipping deeper into the bench.
Typically, games this early in the season see the starters log as minimal minutes as possible, but this core still is trying to figure it out on both ends. The more they can be together now, the more Brey believes it will help later in league play.
Four of the five starters all logged at least 30 minutes.
“Our key guys are learning to play together,” Brey said. “I like how they played defensively together. We needed to improve defensively man-to-man. We couldn’t rely on our man-to-man in Champaign.”
Starting power forward Bonzie Colson played only 22 minutes as the Irish again went small with guard Matt Farrell (13 second-half minutes) in the second half. Colson still had an impact playing alongside Auguste. He grabbed nine rebounds as Notre Dame controlled the backboard with a 43-24 rebounding advantage.
“We’re never going to look as pretty with those two guys, but they do some things on the (defensive) end of the floor where I’m OK living with it being not as aesthetically pleasing as maybe the smaller lineup,” Brey said.
Jackson played a team-high 36 minutes, the third game he’s logged at least that many. That trend will continue.
“When I ask you to run the building, you’ve got to be on the floor to run the building, you know?” Brey said. “You can’t too many breaks. I need you out there.”
Junior power forward Austin Torres made the most of his cameo Tuesday. He played only five minutes, but scored a season-high four points and tied his season high with four rebounds.
The eighth guy in a seven-man rotation, Torres is averaging 0.9 points and 1.3 rebounds in 4.6 minutes. On Tuesday, Brey figured he would lean a little more on the 6-foot-7, 234-pound Torres to help combat Stony Brook big man Jameel Warney (6-8, 240).
The Penn High School product delivered.
“Those are those energy minutes where you come in, do some stuff,” Brey said. “He’s always done that for us. I’ve got a lot of respect for him, ‘cause he’s not playing many minutes but he does what he’s supposed to do.”
All that hustle and energy often allows Torres the chance to do something special, and Tuesday was no exception. He finished a Farrell lob in the closing minute with a dunk, which got the starters on the bench excited.
“That’s AAU Austin Torres,” said Jackson, his AAU teammate from their high school days. “I was really happy to see him fly around and get an alley-oop. It was really neat to see.”
Back in game action for the first time after five days off, Notre Dame connected on 10 of its first 13 shots (76.9 percent) to get to an early big lead.
What was behind such efficiency, really on both ends? Three good days of practice certainly helped. It was the first time that Brey and his assistants could jump back into teaching mode since before the three-game-in-four-day trip to Florida and the quick turnaround trek to Illinois.
“It’s been a long week of practice,” Jackson said. “We were excited to go out and play against another team and just be sharp. We did a really good job of having attention to detail and then having energy and enthusiasm.”
Brey made the sure the Irish had that during a weekend that featured two-a-day workouts. One day, he just changed up all the combinations — and had the Irish scrimmage.
“That makes it amazingly competitive,” Brey said. “It kind of refreshes the practice atmosphere. We’ve really made some great progress.”