Pat Connaughton were 0-2 against Virginia last season.

IRISH EXTRA: Irish Cherish Matchup with Unbeaten Virginia

Jan. 8, 2015

Music boomed out from speakers set on a table near the baseline at the University of Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion.

Even though practice and a film session ended for the Fighting Irish men’s basketball team Wednesday, nobody was about to leave the arena. None of the coaches told the players to hit the court, but each one of Notre Dame’s players went out to the hardwood for more shooting, more work on the boards, more opportunities to build camaraderie, more time to hone themselves into one of the nation’s top teams.

Laughter rang out through Purcell Pavilion as the Irish turned their extra basketball work into fun.

On Saturday the Irish are hoping cheers will ring out through Purcell Pavilion when No. 12 Notre Dame (15-1 overall, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) plays hosts to No. 3 Virginia (15-0, 2-0).

Last season, Notre Dame walked off Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena court on Feb. 22, 2014 after suffering one of the lowest moments in the 2013-14 season, a campaign that ended with a 15-17 record and no post-season play.

Virginia won the game by a 70-49 count, slugging the Irish with a 30-2 run. What was a 41-38 Notre Dame lead turned into a 68-43 Virginia lead. The Irish went nine minutes without a point–and the 49 points on the scoreboard when the final buzzer sounded marked the lowest offensive output for Notre Dame in two seasons.

This year, the Irish hope to walk off the Purcell Pavilion court Saturday with another resounding resume-building victory, the kind of win that can help Notre Dame’s seed in the ACC Tournament and NCAA Championship climb. Tip-off for Saturday’s game is 6 p.m. EST.

Irish captain Pat Connaughton feels Notre Dame has made tremendous strides since that loss at Virginia. For one thing, Connaughton believes when the Irish take a punch this season, they punch back even harder.

“It’s just an overall mental toughness, a maturity level this team has really built over the summer and over the beginning portion of the season,” Connaughton said. “You look at some of the close games we’ve had over the course of the year, that we didn’t come away with last year that we did come away with this year, and that’s the biggest thing.”

Those close games, when the Irish made huge plays down the stretch and conquered adversity, can help Notre Dame in future showdowns, like the one with Virginia.

“I think it’s great we’ve been tested at North Carolina and versus Michigan State,” Connaughton said. “Even when we lost to Providence, it was a close-game situation and we probably could have come away with one. We learned from it.”

Connaughton thinks the Irish have a different … tougher … better mindset regarding defense than when they played the Cavaliers last season.

“I think, obviously, our offensive execution has been a lot better than last year, but the majority of improvement has been defense,” Connaughton said. “This year, we rely on defense to spark our offense. Last year, we relied on offense to dictate whether we played defense hard or not. That’s completely changed. This year, we’ve almost done a 180–our defense always sparks our offense, even when our offense isn’t playing well.”

Irish front-liner Zach Auguste said the Irish have a fight in them this season that will be essential to take on college basketball heavyweights like Virginia.

“We were a little bit weak on the glass last year against Virginia, and our defensive poise wasn’t there 100 percent,” Auguste said. “At times, we failed to stick together. This year, I would say we’re a very unselfish team, I think we’re very determined offensively and defensively, and I think we’re very tight together.

“Every game, I feel like we get stronger and come closer together,” Auguste continued. “The wins are great, but I think we’re a mature team. Regardless of whether we win or lose, we hold each other accountable. We help each other move forward.”

Guards Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia were freshmen last season. When they hear their names announced as Irish starters on Saturday, they will have experience in their arsenal.

“Everybody learned a lot playing in games last year, playing against tough teams,” Vasturia said. “Maybe we didn’t win those games, but we learned from those games. This year, I think we improved a lot defensively, and that’s a big key for us. I also think we’ve improved on the glass.

“Experience is invaluable. You can practice situations, but once you actually play on the big stage, you gain a lot of confidence, and that elevates your game.”

Jackson said he’s a better player thanks to experience.

“The year of experience has definitely helped me out,” Jackson said. “I feel like I’m better with the ball. You understand the game a little more. Your experience allows you to play so much without thinking. You don’t overthink everything. It allows you just to play and be natural and be fluid.”

Jackson’s development as he has taken command of the Irish as the point guard has impressed Connaughton.

“Demetrius is much different from last year,” Connaughton said. “He has a lot more confidence. As a team, we struggled (last year) to show him we had his back.

“I think our leadership last year wasn’t as good as it is this year,” Connaughton said. “Jerian and I made it a point to let him know he’s the point guard and he’s running the squad. We need him from the opening tip to the end of the game. We told him that we know how he can play and the type of energy and the type of athleticism and the type of leadership he brings to the table. We told him, `Don’t hold anything back.'”

Having Grant in the lineup this season also will be another reason the Irish will be much improved from the last time they played Virginia.

“I think Jerian will be an impact player against Virginia,” Connaughton said. “He’s already been an impact player for us. It’s the ability to have him at the end of games, where we have a closer we didn’t have last year. He makes the right play every time. It’s not necessarily something he has to do by himself. He has a whole team around him, and he knows that. He knows we’re here for him, and we know he’s here for us. That should differentiate this year from last year.”

Jackson said the Irish know their game plan.

“We definitely have to rebound,” Jackson said. “We have to lock in defensively and make good decisions to take care of the ball. We’ve been doing a good job. We’ve been working hard. We just have to grind it out. We know it’s going to be a long game, and we know we’re going to take some punches. We just have to stay together. We’ve done a good job of that, of having each other’s backs.

“Our coaches have done a great job helping us improve on defense,” Jackson said. “They help us pay attention to detail and know certain personnel. They do a good job of scouting and breaking down film, helping us understand tendencies.”

For Auguste, playing the Irish brand of hoops is Job 1. Notre Dame doesn’t need to change anything and let Virginia dictate how the Irish attack.

“We have to play our basketball,” Auguste said. “We don’t have to force anything up. We can take our time and get great shots, like we always do.”

Vasturia said players are hoping for a huge boost from a roaring Irish home crowd. The Irish have been able to count on their fans in the past for huge victories against powers like Duke and Syracuse in recent seasons.

“Everybody is excited for a big game, especially at home in front of our home crowd,” Vasturia said. “Playing at home is a big advantage, especially with the crowd we’ve had this year. They’re behind us, they’re cheering, they’re backing us the whole game. It’s fun playing here. We like defending the home court.”

Auguste is looking forward to the opportunity to showcase the Notre Dame program Saturday–and that the Irish have the mental toughness to separate the hoop from the hype.

“We understand this is a big game,” Auguste said. “Every game is a big game, regardless of who we play. But we have to have in the back of our mind, if we win this, there can be things that come with it. But at the same time, we have to be focused on taking care of business and do what we have to do to win this game.”

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent