Jan. 20, 2015
It started with a three-pointer from the top of the key at the 14:34 mark of the second half.
Trailing by 12 points, 43-31, to a Miami Hurricanes team fresh off a 90-74 upset of No. 4 Duke, the University of Notre Dame men’s basketball team dug its deficit in part due to two-of-16 shooting slump from three-point range.
That’s when Fighting Irish point guard Demetrius Jackson stepped up and launched a three a little more than five minutes into the second stanza.
As the ball sank through the net, Irish confidence soared.
V.J. Beachem connected for a pair of threes, and then Pat Connaughton hit a three. The four consecutive threes by the Irish were part of a 21-7 run that sparked a masterful second-half comeback that resulted in a 75-70 victory Saturday for Notre Dame.
Notre Dame (17-2 overall, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference, ranked #8 AP, #9 USA Today) plays at Virginia Tech Thursday and at North Carolina State Sunday before returning to Purcell Pavilion Jan. 28 to take on Duke.
Ignited by Jackson’s three, Notre Dame hit seven of its next nine shots from three-point distance. The Irish, who entered the game leading the nation in field-goal shooting (53.0 percent), connected on 16 of their last 22 shots (73 percent) to downgrade the Hurricanes. The Irish had hit 11 of 33 (33 percent) up to that point.
It started at the 14:34 mark Saturday, but Notre Dame’s ability to take command started long before Jackson’s three swished through the net.
It was a convergence of confidence and coaching that allowed Notre Dame to shake off a rough shooting patch, a culture of success cultivated by Irish head coach Mike Brey and his staff.
“Well, they play for a heck of a coach, baby, because they’re not looking over their shoulder,” Brey said with a laugh. “I’m a firm believer in the law of averages, because we can shoot the ball.”
Confidence enabled the Irish to focus on the task at hand when the Hurricanes grabbed their 12-point lead.
“Our guys are kind of poised,” Brey said. “They don’t panic. They keep taking them. Coach is a little nervous, but they keep taking them. Still the loosest coach in America. Got to be, to play our offense. Those guys have a free mind. Real loose at 5-1 (in the conference).
“We were down against Tech, we were down against (Miami), and there’s really not panic or worry or discouragement,” Brey said. “They do have a strong belief that they’re going to figure out a way to win. They show signs of being a special team. I flat-out told them that. It’s certainly needed as we move on through this league.”
Focus to lock in on the fight starts with the senior leadership, according to Brey.
“You’ve got to look at the individual personalities,” Brey said. “When you start with our two seniors (Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton). Those guys are just rock-solid experienced college basketball players. They’ve done a great job of setting the tone.
“Demetrius Jackson’s mental toughness and leadership is vastly underrated,” Brey said. “He is strong and talks in timeouts and practices. He’s set a great tone. (Steve) Vasturia is rock solid. He doesn’t waver. The thing I’ve been interested to see is that (V.J.) Beachem is starting to become that way. He’s blossoming into a more physically and mentally tough player.”
Bringing the right people into his program and forging their strengths into team concepts gave the Irish the weapons they needed to erase a 12-point second half deficit. Brey’s focus and ability to adjust in game situations helped the Irish. He recognized the time was perfect to switch to a five-guard lineup, taking advantage of lightning-quick guards like Grant and Jackson.
“In the last two possessions here, against Virginia and Georgia Tech, in the first half, we went small,” Brey said. “We subbed and used our time out and V.J. (Beachem) hit a three both times. We do that for special situations, so why don’t we try that?
“Your first reaction is that we won’t be able to guard or rebound, but heck, we can’t rebound anyways,” Brey said. “Why don’t we just play small and have some more firepower on the floor. So we got that group some more reps Friday and darn if we didn’t need them today. The smaller lineup really spreads the floor and we were getting cleaner looks because we were getting drives from Grant and Jackson and kicking out to guys for really clean looks.”
Vasturia said the Irish focus is an important asset.
“Obviously, focus is huge,” Vasturia said. “You have to stay locked in the whole 40 minutes. If you miss a couple, you still have to step up and take shots because your teammates are counting on you. You have to have a short memory. It’s a long game.”
Notre Dame’s ability to maintain its poise despite the deficit gave the Irish an edge against Miami.
“I think it says a lot about the maturity and the toughness of this team,” Connaughton said of the comeback. “We have been trying to preach maturity and toughness all year and build our team off that, really focusing ourselves from the defensive end up, and I think we did that very well.
“We did not get discouraged when we were down, we actually got mad – mad in a good way, in a way where we could call each other out and say, `Look, in order to get back in this we need to do this thing together as one, all five of us and all 13 of us as a whole.’ Once we were able to do that we started a trend and allowed ourselves to get the ball rolling in the other direction, which was tough to stop.”
According to Connaughton, the Irish never wavered in their belief in each other.
“Focus is huge, and it doesn’t just come from yourself,” Connaughton said. “It comes from your teammates, too. Each guy on this team picks each other up. When you miss a shot, everybody is telling you, ‘Keep shooting. Do not stop shooting the ball. You’ve made countless numbers of these in practice, shooting by yourself, in games … ‘ It’s the focus and confidence that each member of the team gives each other in order to make comebacks like this and really flip that switch to start making shots when they’re open.”
Notre Dame’s focus also carried over to the defensive side. Miami star Angel Rodriguez, who scored 24 points in the upset of Duke, scored four points against the Irish. The Hurricanes’ guard entered the game leading all scorers in ACC contests with 22.0 points a game. Against Notre Dame, Rodriguez was one of 10 shooting.
“I thought Demetrius Jackson took that as a big-time challenge,” Brey said. “Rodriguez has given a lot of people the blues. He never got going, and I give Demetrius a lot of credit for that. We switched a lot of stuff with that smaller lineup. A lot of different guys guarded him. Steve (Vasturia) had him at one time. V.J. (Beachem) had him at one time. Pat (Connaughton) had him at one time. We just wanted to take away the three-point shot and make him get into the lane and be more of a play-maker, because he lights you up with threes. That’s what he did to Duke. That’s what he did to Florida.”
For Connaughton, the Irish toughness displayed Saturday can be a formula for success in March.
“It was the confidence we had in ourselves and in each other,” Connaughton said of the second-half surge. “We don’t ever have a letdown in excitement, and we don’t have personalities or egos get to us. The biggest thing is the five guys on the floor had each others’ backs.”
That togetherness and focus enabled the Irish to push forward to their best start since the 1978-79 season. It’s a togetherness and focus that may enable the Irish to reach greater heights.
— By Curt Rallo/special correspondent