Nov. 17, 2014
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – It started with Jerian Grant calmly swishing two free throws.
A 14-5 run by the University of Notre Dame men’s basketball team helped the Fighting Irish build a 19-point lead at 60-41 and take command against a pesky Navy squad. Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey saw his club go on to post a dominating 92-53 victory against Navy Sunday at Purcell Pavilion. The Irish (2-0) play host to Coppin State at 7 p.m. EST Wednesday night.
On Friday night, Navy gave Michigan State all it could handle before the Spartans escaped with a 64-59 victory. On Sunday, the Irish were full-speed ahead in the second half to leave Navy in their wake.
Grant started the 14-5 run with the free throws, and Auguste finished it with an exclamation mark slam dunk. What happened in between was a mature team imposing its will through a convergence of maturity, trust, communication and a relentless defense.
Navy nudged within 16 points after the run and then the Irish put a stranglehold on the game, outscoring Navy 30-7 the rest of the way, including an 18-3 run to finish.
Navy only trailed the Irish by eight points at halftime, 36-28.
Grant, who posted a double-double with 17 points and 10 assists, said the Irish ability to take over a game is critical.
“It’s huge, it’s the difference between good teams, teams that don’t get wins, and great teams,” Grant said. “Great teams take command. They get stops. They communicate really well on the floor. That’s something that we’re trying to hang our hat on.”
According to Connaughton, who scored 13 points and had eight assists, Notre Dame’s second-half domination is a sign of improvement from last season.
“That’s something mature teams do,” Connaughton said of taking over the game. “We weren’t able to do that last year. To see it the second game of the season against a team that gave Michigan State a scare is very impressive for me to see.”
Brey said even when the Irish struggled offensively they continued to harass Navy with a pressure defense. The Irish ended up forcing 20 turnovers, 11 of them on steals. Not letting up on defense was a huge step.
“I hope we have some maturity in that area now,” Brey said. “We have some talented offensive guys, and we love to get into our rhythm offensively. I think at times before, when we weren’t in a great offensive rhythm, it affected our defensive focus. Maybe we only had three guys guarding, because two guys were ticked off about, ‘I’m not shooting it well,’ or, ‘I didn’t get a shot,’ which is really high school stuff.
“I thought we made great progress in that area in the summer, where we can rely on guarding, even if we’re not doing well on that other end. I need to stay on that all year, because that’s really important.”
At halftime, the players took it upon themselves to talk about taking command.
“We really talked about coming out in the second half strong,” Grant said. “We didn’t start the game as well as we wanted to. At the beginning of the second half, we told each other, `This is what we’re going to hang our hat on this year, being able to start strong the second half, and it starts defensively.’ I thought we did that really well against Navy.”
Connaughton said the Irish were determined to pull away in the second half. The determination translated into a 56-25 Irish edge in the final 20 minutes.
“One of the things we focused on at halftime when we talked as players was we wanted to come out and start the second half and be a team that comes out with energy in the second half and see how much we can extend this lead,” Connaughton said. “That’s something this team has more than in years past. We’re not satisfied with having the lead, we want to extend the lead. We want to play our mentality of basketball, even when some teams may put it in cruise control.”
Connaughton believes Notre Dame’s strong finish will help the Irish gear up to pursue their season goals.
“This game builds confidence,” Connaughton said. “We’ve been using last year as motivation. Defense is one of them, taking command of a game when it was close is one of them. We were never able to break open the games we should have been able to break open last year. That’s where we’ve grown over the off-season.”
For Brey, seeing the players take charge was important. The Irish started out hitting only six of their first 16 shots (38 percent). The Irish turned their fortunes around, hitting 26 of their last 41 shots (63 percent).
“That was an example of slowly imposing your will and slowly getting into that offensive rhythm in the second half,” Brey said. “I think that’s confidence and that’s trust of one another that eventually it will kick in for us, but to not panic and to play possession by possession and to not let up on the defensive end, because something didn’t happen the way you like on the offensive end.
“We’re showing great traits. We’ll have even more screws turned on us this weekend in a true road atmosphere. How will we react there when a run comes? Those are all things we have to talk about this week.”
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent