Big night from PF Juwan Durham ends with big win for Notre Dame hoops

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

{child_flags:featured}Another close one for ND

{child_byline}By Tom Noie

South Bend Tribune

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SOUTH BEND — With his big right paw high in the air and position established on the left block, Notre Dame junior power forward Juwan Durham called for the ball on the offensive end.

On the other, he tactfully tracked and timed shot after shot to swat them out of the air and inject some juice into a small but spirited Purcell Pavilion crowd.

It was that kind of do-it-all, breakout night for the 6-foot-11 Durham — a big one, one he never enjoyed during a lost freshman year at Connecticut. One he never had last season while trying to get his body and his mind healthy while sitting out under NCAA transfer regulations.

But with an Irish big man needed to do something Tuesday against a physical Illinois outfit in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge, it was Durham who provided the necessary boost. Five games after logging a DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision) Durham erupted for a career-high 10 points with a game-high five blocks and three rebounds in 17 minutes during a 76-74 victory.

“You just know that you’ve always got to stay ready no matter what,” Durham said. “If you let sitting down at the end of the bench get to you, then you’ll never be ready.

“You’ve got to say motivated.”

Usually one of the last guys in off the Irish bench, Durham’s had to remind himself that he never knows what night will be his night. He had to be ready Tuesday when John Mooney battled foul trouble all night. If Mooney stays out of foul trouble, maybe Durham stays on the bench. But he didn’t, so the door opened for Durham.

He kicked it in.

With blocked shots. With work in the low post. With his free throws. With a two-handed dunk. It’s the type of play from an Irish big man that fans haven’t seen in a few years. They liked it. They embraced it.

“You just never know when a lightbulb is kind of going to go on,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “I think maybe we’ve got one going here.”

With each block or bucket, Durham became more of a fan favorite.

“I was just trying to help out the team as much as I could,” he said.

Especially with his blocks, which helped the Irish wrestle momentum and keep the Illini guessing on each possession. Where’s the big guy? Where’s No. 11? Is he lurking? Waiting?

“They’re a little nervous to come back down,” Durham said. “If they do want to come back down, I’m going to try and block it again. I just try to put that fear in their hearts.”

It was, Durham admitted afterward, the first time he’d impacted a game in so many ways since his junior year of high school in Tampa, Fla. Back before injuries to both knees cost him almost all of his final two years of high school. Fans have wondered why the long and lanky kid hasn’t played more than a cameo here or there the first six games of the season, but he wasn’t ready. Far from it. He still is so raw.

Few would understand just how blank a slate Durham was when he arrived as a transfer after his one season in Storrs. His body wasn’t right. He needed surgery for a lingering wrist issue midway through his sit-out season. He needed to gain 20 pounds. And, maybe above all else, he just needed to play. To understand the game. To realize what it takes to be a really good college basketball player.

He’s learned a lot of lessons about that, but there’s still so many more to learn. He learned one after not playing at all against Radford. Even though he stayed stapled to the bench, Durham had to get in early the next day, and the next and the next and the next. He had to work with assistant coach Ryan Humphrey, in charge of the Irish bigs, which would help grow his game and grow his confidence so that he could do a lot of the stuff that he did Tuesday night, when he looked like a young Humphrey, minus the mega-watt smile and swagger.

“His frame of mind is good,” Brey said. “I’m just so proud of how he’s engaged in Notre Dame. Tonight, was like, if ever a kid deserved it, it was him.”

There’s been more of an investment, Brey said, in Durham since the DNP. An investment by the coaching staff to get Durham to understand that the game had to be more important to him daily, whether he was playing major minutes or not playing any minutes.

“Ryan’s been really good with him,” Brey said. “I think that’s helped focus and preparation and this is more business-like for him.”

Durham’s also stayed steady off the floor. Any growing pains associated with basketball hasn’t carried over to Durham’s academics. Brey said Tuesday that Durham’s never received lower than a B in any of his classes.

In the end, Durham’s bust-out game almost was wasted. Notre Dame (6-1) allowed a 13-point lead with 6:30 to nearly slip away. Illinois got within one point in the final 5.8 seconds before a Rex Pflueger free throw made it 76-74. Illinois had a chance at the end but a clean look at a straight-on 3 from Trent Frazier rolled around and halfway down, then out.

“I think that shot was, we’ll call it 3/4 of the way down,” said Illinois coach Brad Underwood. “Our time’s coming and those are going to go in.”

Durham wasn’t alone in enjoying a needed big game. Sophomore swingman D.J. Harvey, himself battling some confidence issues and fighting to find any sort of shot consistency, delivered a career-high 19 points. He’d failed to score double figures in each of the previous two games, but came up big when big was needed.

“Very frustrating,” Harvey said of his previous games of five and three points. “I’m probably my hardest critic so I stay in the gym after hours. Gotta work on being more consistent. Just gotta build from here.”

As much as Durham and Harvey enjoyed big nights, and as much as this was a closed game – one that featured 18 ties and 12 lead changes — this one was tough to watch. A rock fight. Ugly. The game featured 44 fouls and 54 free throws. The Irish were uncharacteristically shaky at the foul line. After opening the season by going 36-of-38, the Irish connected on only 24 of 39 on Tuesday.

“We didn’t play our best basketball,” Harvey said. “We definitely needed this one.”

Freshman guard Robby Carmody again hurt his left shoulder- the same one he tweaked in the exhibition game. Carmody went right to the trainer’s room in the first half and returned to the bench during the under-eight minute media timeout. He checked back into the game with 1:01 left before half but did not play in the second. Brey saw Carmody wincing while working his shoulder loose at half, so he decided not to play him. Carmody figures to be back ready for practice Thursday following the team’s off day.

Notre Dame moved to 4-2 in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference for the 2013-14 season.

“We’re building this thing,” Brey said. “I’m learning about them during the game. This is new for me. We’ve learned a lot.

“For our group, that’s just a fabulous win.”

• NOTRE DAME 76, ILLINOIS 74

At Purcell Pavilion

ILLINOIS (2-5): Bezhanishvili 8-15 5-5 22, Feliz 3-5 0-0 7, Jordan 8-13 2-3 23, Dosunmu 3-10 0-0 8, Frazier 3-11 0-0 6, Nichols 1-3 0-0 2, De La Rosa 0-2 0-1 0, Kane 0-0 0-0 0, Williams 0-4 6-6 6, Oladimeji 0-0 0-0 0, Griffin 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 26-64 13-15 74.<

NOTRE DAME (6-1): Mooney 2-3 0-0 4, Hubb 3-7 3-5 10, Gibbs 7-16 2-4 19, Pflueger 0-2 5-8 5, Harvey 5-8 7-10 19, Durham 3-4 4-8 10, Laszewski 1-5 2-2 4, Djogo 0-0 0-0 0, Carmody 0-0 0-0 0, Goodwin 2-5 1-2 5. Totals 23-50 24-39 76.<

Halftime—Illinois 35-34. 3-Point Goals—Illinois 9-24 (Jordan 5-7, Dosunmu 2-3, Feliz 1-2, Bezhanishvili 1-3, Williams 0-1, Nichols 0-1, Griffin 0-1, Frazier 0-6), Notre Dame 6-19 (Gibbs 3-7, Harvey 2-4, Hubb 1-3, Goodwin 0-1, Pflueger 0-1, Laszewski 0-3). Fouled Out—Mooney, Williams, Bezhanishvili, Jordan. Rebounds—Illinois 37 (Dosunmu 9), Notre Dame 33 (Harvey, Mooney 6). Assists—Illinois 17 (Feliz 6), Notre Dame 11 (Gibbs, Pflueger 4). Total Fouls—Illinois 26, Notre Dame 18. Technicals—Nichols. A—8,053 (9,149).

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Notre Dame power forward Juwan Durham swats one of his five blocked shots during Tuesday's victory over Illinois.