Dec. 22, 2014
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) – With one game left before jumping into their Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, No. 16 Notre Dame is already clicking on offense.
Pat Connaughton had 21 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Fighting Irish to a 91-66 win over Northern Illinois on Monday night.
For the first time in school history, the Irish (12-1) have scored 70 or more points in each of their first 13 games. They lead the nation in field-goal percentage and assists-to-turnover ratio, and rank in the top five in four other categories.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey may not be shocked by his team’s fast start, but he acknowledged being a little surprised.
“I thought we’d be good,” Brey said. “We’re a little bit ahead of schedule. I didn’t know we’d be pounding people by 30. But I felt we had a lot to work with.”
Zach Auguste added 16 points, on 7-for-7 shooting, and eight rebounds for the Irish. Demetrius Jackson also scored 16, with five assists and four steals.
All five starters scored in double figures for Notre Dame, which shot 58.9 percent from the field and hit 12 of 28 attempts from 3-point range. Connaughton was 8 for 12 from the floor, including 5 of 9 from beyond the arc.
In the offseason, Brey said he asked assistant coach Rod Balanis to post a list of the top 15 projected players in the ACC, a group that included their returning seniors, Connaughton and Jerian Grant. Brey kept that chart up as a morale booster.
“I needed to remind myself, OK, I’ve got those two guys, and I’m pretty sure they’re coming back,” Brey said. “I thought, that’s a pretty good place to start.”
Connaughton took control of the game to begin the second half, helping to put away the Huskies (4-5) after his team led 48-35 at the break.
During a 19-13 Irish run, Connaughton made a trio of 3-pointers, a short jumper and converted an alley-oop layup off a fast-break feed from Jackson, putting Notre Dame up 67-48.
Midway through the first half, the Huskies pulled even at 21 on a 3-pointer by Michael Orris. Steve Vasturia quickly answered with a 3 of his own, triggering a 27-14 Notre Dame run to finish the half.
Grant’s step-back 3 at the buzzer put the Irish up by 13.
As it has all season, Notre Dame enjoyed balanced offense. Grant had 11 points and six assists, though he shot 2 for 9. Vasturia finished with 10 points.
Darrell Bowie had 15 points to pace Northern Illinois, which hit 10 of its first 19 shots. Aaron Armstead scored 13.
Connaughton was asked after the game if he ever said Notre Dame would start its season the way it has.
“I don’t know if it’s something I would have necessarily said publicly … but it’s something we always thought we could do,” he said. “To be quite honest, we’re hungrier because we think we should be 13-0.”
The last time NIU beat a ranked opponent was on Feb. 3, 1973, when it defeated No. 19 Oral Roberts 95-86 at Chicago Stadium.
Entering the game, Notre Dame ranked third in the country in scoring margin (plus 25.2 points), fourth in fewest personal fouls per game (13.7) and fifth in points per game (85.7).
Coming in, four of Notre Dame’s five starters were averaging double figures in scoring.
“That’s really huge for us,” Brey said. “And guys are secure with different guys scoring. That’s a big key moving forward. To hear them talk about it, they really love that about themselves. They love that they have different ways of coming at people.”
Notre Dame hosts Hartford next Tuesday.