Notre Dame men win conference grind of a game

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – In a grind of an Atlantic Coast Conference game that was rarely easy on the eyes, Notre Dame walked out of Purcell Pavilion into a frosty early Thursday morning with something it really needed.

A league win.

Didn’t matter how it unfolded, just that it did.

Senior captain Zach Auguste got back to his effective pick-and-roll and dunking self with a season-high 24 points with nine rebounds while junior captain Demetrius Jackson shook off a rough shooting night to do a little of everything as the Irish did what they usually do when backed into the proverbial conference corner.

They bounced back from Saturday’s home loss to Pittsburgh with a 72-64 victory over a Georgia Tech team that came to town feeling really good about itself after beating then-No. 4 Virginia over the weekend.

“Winning’s really important to us,” Jackson said. “Just to grind one out, it’s always a grind of a game against Georgia Tech because they’re really good and they’re physical.

“It’s always great to have a win.”

Jackson flirted hard with the school’s second-ever triple double. He finished with 18 points, a career-high nine rebounds and eight assists.

“I just try to do what it takes,” said Jackson, who was aware during the game how close he was to joining another guard, Chris Thomas, to do the triple-double honor. “I was just doing what I need to do to help this team win games.”

Notre Dame improves to 11-5, 2-2 in the ACC. Georgia Tech is 10-6, 1-3.

A V.J. Beachem drive and pretty left-handed finish bumped the home team up by nine – its largest lead – with 4:29 remaining. The Yellow Jackets refused to fold, not with Marcus Georges-Hunt able to get basically anything he wanted whenever he wanted around the rim. He cut the Irish advantage to six. And when Adam Smith dropped in a fade 3 over the hand of Steve Vasturia with 3:23 left, it was back to a one-possession game.

Who wanted it?

“Here we go!” bellowed Mike Brey out of a timeout.

But where? Notre Dame didn’t convert on the ensuing possession, yet retained possession when the Jackets fumbled a potential rebound out of bounds. Auguste then rebounded a Vasturia miss and headed to the free throw line with 1:57 left.

He hit both to make it a five-point game.

Jackson followed with a pair of free throws of his own to put the Irish up seven with 66 seconds left. Two more tosses from Jackson made it a nine-point game with 46.4 seconds left.

Georges-Hunt led the Yellow Jackets with 18 points.

Notre Dame had won its previous three league meetings with Georgia Tech by an average of 4.3 points. That included last January’s matchup in South Bend which went to double overtime. As permanent repeat league opponents, the teams meet again this season – next month in Atlanta.

Notre Dame jumped into the free throw bonus following Georgia Tech’s seventh foul with 7:38 remaining. In a game where every possession was a struggle, free throws could help swing this the Irish way.

The Irish went 14-for-16 from the line over the final seven-plus minutes. Jackson went nine of 10 in that stretch.

“It felt good to go up and knock some free throws in when I needed to,” he said.

After struggling to get any consistency going offensively in the first half, Notre Dame returned by hitting five of its first eight in the second. That included three-straight dunks, two from Auguste and a baseline flush from Jackson.

Auguste got on a serious scoring roll, going for four-straight baskets and five of six for the Irish at one point. That allowed the home team to open seven-point lead, but Notre Dame had no answer for Alabama transfer Nick Jacobs, who answered with five-straight hoops of his own to keep the Jackets close. Jacobs basically hit for his average – 10.1 – in about three-plus minutes of serious offensive work in the second half.

The Irish led by seven for a stretch in the second half but couldn’t get any more separation.

Following Saturday’s home loss to Pittsburgh, Brey publicly pondered changing up the starting lineup, but twice reiterated Monday that no decision had been made, and may not be made before Wednesday.

By gametime, one had been made. Actually, it was made Sunday afternoon.

Freshman forward Matt Ryan moved into the starting lineup in place of sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson. It was the first change to the starting group this season, and the first start of Ryan’s career. Ryan had worked the last few games as the team’s sixth man.

Ryan tied his career high with five rebounds in the first half. He finished with 10 points and seven rebounds.

“I’ve gotten comfortable playing with the lineup that was in there,” Ryan said. “It was a role I had to embrace and I had to be good on the backboard. That was the No. 1 thing.”

Notre Dame worked much of the night in a four-around-one look with Auguste and Colson tag-teaming as the lone big men.

“The spacing most of the night helped us,” Brey said. “We played a lot tonight like we played at Boston College. There’s something about spacing, when you can open that floor up, I think it really helps us.”

So efficient offensively much of this season, it was going to be interesting to see what Notre Dame would be like, and how it would play, when everything wasn’t running so smoothly on that end. The Irish posted offensive numbers good enough to win each of their first three league games, but instead had only a 1-2 mark to show for it. The struggles they had on the defensive fell onto the other side of the floor in Wednesday’s first half.

Getting good looks wasn’t an issue early for the Irish. Making them was. Notre Dame opened by connecting on only four of its first 14 shots, yet still did enough defensively to lead by five at the under-12 timeout of the first half.

While Saturday’s game was fun to watch from an offensive standpoint, the same could not be said about Wednesday’s first half. It was, to put it politely, not very easy on the eyes. There were plenty of fouls (16) and not a lot of baskets (19). Georgia Tech shot 25 percent from the field, 12.5 percent from 3. Notre Dame, which led by three at intermission, shot 32.3 percent from the field, 14.3 percent from 3.

The teams combined to go 19-of-67 (28.3 percent) from the field in the first half.

“To us, it’s a beautiful league win in an ugly league game in January,” Brey said. “To be 2-2 in this league, we’re thrilled.”

Notre Dame returns to action Saturday at No. 9 Duke, which lost Wednesday at Clemson.

NOTRE DAME 72, GEORGIA TECH 64

GEORGIA TECH (11-6): Mitchell 3-9 1-2 7, Stephens 1-8 0-2 2, White 0-0 1-2 1, Smith 4-14 3-4 15, Georges-Hunt 7-16 4-4 18, Jackson 2-5 2-2 7, Jorgenson 0-0 0-0 0, Heath 1-4 0-0 2, Jacobs 5-14 0-0 10, Lammers 1-2 0-1 2. Totals 24-72 11-17 64.

NOTRE DAME (11-5): Beachem 1-3 4-4 6, Ryan 3-9 3-4 10, Auguste 10-13 4-6 24, Jackson 2-11 13-14 18, Vasturia 3-9 0-0 6, Pflueger 0-0 0-0 0, Farrell 0-2 0-0 0, Colson 2-7 4-4 8. Totals 21-54 28-32 72.

Halftime--Notre Dame 30-27. 3-Point Goals--Georgia Tech 5-19 (Smith 4-11, Jackson 1-2, Stephens 0-3, Georges-Hunt 0-3), Notre Dame 2-15 (Ryan 1-6, Jackson 1-7, Vasturia 0-1, Beachem 0-1). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Georgia Tech 43 (Mitchell 13), Notre Dame 43 (Auguste, Jackson 9). Assists--Georgia Tech 11 (Heath 5), Notre Dame 11 (Jackson 8). Total Fouls--Georgia Tech 21, Notre Dame 16. A--7,795.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame coach Mike Brey reacts during Wednesday's win over Georgia Tech.Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN