March 19, 2015

Irish NCAA Tournament Central

Irish in the 2015 NCAA Championships: The Notre Dame Men in Pittsburgh

Thursday March 19, 2015

It’s game day in Pittsburgh, and it begins early.

8:30 a.m.–The University of Notre Dame men’s basketball support staff begins to gather in the second-floor Sheraton meal room. Six tables are set–two marked for players, one for coaches and three for staff. It’s the usual breakfast buffet fare of scrambled eggs, bacon and French toast.

8:50 a.m.–A speaker is plugged into the wall, and the music begins to flow. It’s an upbeat sound and several players arrive snapping their fingers.

8:55 a.m.–Head coach Mike Brey shows in blue warm-up pants and a blue Under Armour long-sleeved Irish basketball shirt.

8:56 a.m.–Steve Vasturia is the first player to enter the breakfast area. Operations assistant Harold Swanagan brandishes a bright gold pom-pom for his young son.

8:57 a.m.Eric Katenda, Austin Burgett, V.J. Beachem, Matt Gregory and Martin Geben arrive.

9 a.m.–Assistant coach Anthony Solomon heads into the room, followed by another group of players.

9:02 a.m.–Torrian Jones, the former Irish player and current Notre Dame radio network analyst says, “Ready to watch history continue.”

9:04 a.m.–Vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick enters the room, wearing a green tie, and sits between Brey and Swanagan.

9:07 a.m.–Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant are the final players to come to breakfast. Brey is channeling caffeine from a large Starbucks cup. The breakfast conversation at the staff tables includes the HoopsU show that Showtime aired Wednesday night, featuring the footage from the Notre Dame and Maryland programs over the last six weeks or so.

If anyone is stressed about the day’s challenge you wouldn’t know it. The music keeps the moments light and the conversation is upbeat.

9:15 a.m. – The coaches and players exit quickly to the film room for a final update.

Brey talks his team through some clips from the Atlantic Coast Conference games last weekend in Greensboro, North Carolina. There’s a quick graphic showing individual game team free-throw totals from the three ACC games, and Brey notes that strength.

As clips from the win over Duke hit the screen, Brey says, “We’re attacking, we’re stepping up and making big shots.”

As clips from the North Carolina game roll, Brey says, “That’s level five stuff.”

He adds, “We won a trophy because we defended. I want to see what Northeastern does against our ball pressure.”

The players are quiet and intent in the front two rows.

Brey continues:

“Look at our body language.

“Let’s show `em how hard we play.

“Let’s get level five again.”

The players gather quickly as a group, and then they are out the door.

The session lasts barely five minutes, but it’s designed to give the Irish the most positive of thoughts as they head into battle.

As several Irish staff members exit the room, one of the hotel staffers who coordinated breakfast said, to no one in particular, “You know we’re expecting two more days now. Don’t disappoint us.”

No pressure there.

10:15 a.m. – Trainer Skip Meyer, strength and conditioning staffer Tony Rolinski and radio play-by-play man Jack Nolan are already on the bus. It’s partly sunny outside and 34 degrees.

The Irish band, accessorized significantly in green, joins the Notre Dame in cheerleaders in creating a path from the hotel front door to the bus.

“American Woman” by the Guess Who and “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” by Chicago play on the bus sound system.

10:26 a.m. – Brey walks onto the bus, acknowledging the band and carrying his cup of coffee. Nine hotel staffers slip out a side door to watch.

10:31 a.m. – The band plays the “Victory March” as the players head out for their assignment, with Vasturia and Beachem leading the way.

10:33 a.m. – The bus departs with the help of a motorcycle escort, headed over the Smithfield Street Bridge.

10:47 a.m. – The music is revved up as the players dress, with a CBS Sports crew recording them.

Grant appears deep in thought, staring down, with warm-up top, stocking cap and headphones on. There are 22 minutes until the Irish can take the court.

Assistant coach Rod Balanis, who had the scouting assignment for this game, uses the white board and writes the Northeastern lineup and the keys to the game with a marker.

10:50 a.m. – Brey sits in the coaches’ room and studies the scouting report one last time.

10:51 a.m. – The CBS crew finishes, and Grant begins to dress.

11:06 a.m. – The music has been turned up a notch. Balanis’ defensive keys involve sprinting back in transition, communication through the Northeastern motion offense and one and done. His offensive keys are great outlets and run, making them (Northeastern) guard and low post touches.

11:10 a.m. – The Irish players wait on the court for the 60-minute clock to begin so they can use the basketballs. Rolinski leads the stretching work.

Swanagan visits behind the Irish bench with former Notre Dame guard and Pittsburgh product Dwight Clay (in a blue sports jacket with a pocket square and a Notre Dame baseball cap), who hit the 1974 jump shot that ended UCLA’s record 71-game win streak.

11:30 a.m. – The Irish assistants stand in the midcourt circle and exchange notes.

11:50 a.m. – The Irish are back in the locker room.

11:52 a.m. – Brey wheels into the room and energizes the scene.

“Nobody thrives in a hard game better than we do,” he says.

He reviews each of the Northeastern players and emphasizes tips on defending them.

“It’s a long game, help each other and have fun.”

12:03 p.m. – The Notre Dame band plays the National Anthem with both teams at their respective free-throw lines, then both teams exit the court for final instructions.

12:11 p.m. – The Irish are just off the court in a tunnel, bouncing as a unit, then take the court to the “Victory March” with 4:20 to tip.

12:20 p.m. — Here we go.

12:21 p.m. – David Walker hits a three for an early lead after a Huskies’ rebound. There’s already a good crowd on hand at the Consol Energy Center.

12:21 p.m. — At 18:35 Zach Auguste is fouled going to the bucket on a pass from Connaughton – Auguste hits both free throws for the first Irish points.

12:23 p.m. – The Irish lead on an Auguste lay-in from Demetrius Jackson at 4-3, and then comes a smooth three by Connaughton.

12:29 p.m. – Beachem and Bonzie Colson are in as Auguste gets his second foul at 14:46, and Colson notches a quick hoop. Then Austin Torres is in for Colson after Colson commits two quick fouls.

12:34 p.m. — At the 11:51 media timeout Colson is going to the line with Northeastern up 11-9, and his free throws tie it at 11.

12:40 p.m. — Northeastern misses a dunk attempt, then Torres puts his team on top 13-11 on a goal-tending call.

12:41 p.m. – Notre Dame is up 15-11 on a three-on-one break with Jackson getting the hoop after an Irish steal.

12:42 p.m. — Vasturia goes to the floor to make a steal, flips to a teammate and Grant gets fast-break attempt and is fouled.

12:44 p.m. — Walker’s three ties it at 18 at the seven-minute mark. Grant responds with a step-back two. Then Jackson misses a lay-in after a nice move – the Irish are missing too many close-in attempts around the rim.

12:47 p.m. – Northeastern goes ahead 22-20 and the Irish take time at the 5:20 mark.

12:55 p.m. – It’s the final media timeout of the half at 3:32, with the Huskies on top 24-22 and Vasturia headed to the line. The Irish are eight of 17 shooting, while Northeastern is 10 of 19. Notre Dame has only three turnovers, with the Huskies leading 11-8 on the boards. There hasn’t been much rhythm for either side so far.

12:57 p.m. — Grant gives the Irish the lead at 25-24 on a nifty drive to the hoop. After two straight traveling violations vs. Northeastern, Jackson makes a great drive for a 27-24 lead

1:02 p.m. – At 1:01 Northeastern calls time with Notre Dame up 29-24 on an Auguste lay-in

1:05 p.m. – Brey does a quick interview Dana Jacobson of CBS as the half ends with the Irish up 31-27 on 54 percent first-half shooting. Both teams managed 22 field-goal attempts, with the Huskies guarding the three-point line and limiting Notre Dame to two three-point attempts and one connection (both shots by Connaughton).

The Irish assistants are enthusiastic in the locker room, and so is Brey:

“Way to finish the half. They’ve only got 27 points. We’re going to dig in and guard.

“It’s body position at the end of the clock. I love how we’re attacking the rim. Big guys be big targets. Twenty more!! Have fun playing, man.”

1:07 p.m. – Brey and his assistants huddle with the door to their room closed, with lots of time remaining in the halftime break. Connaughton sits on the floor and the Irish players trade notes among themselves.

1:15 p.m. – With 10 minutes left in halftime, Brey comes back in front of his team:

“Let’s get in there and get a great start. It’s a grinding game. How many games have we had this year where we had to grind it out? Make good decisions on the offensive end. Who starts halfs better than us in this tournament?”

Connaughton chest-bumps Swanagan in the hallway on the way back to the court. (Who says basketball can’t be fun?)

1:21 p.m. – The second half begins – and at 19:46 Auguste gets hit with his third foul, an offensive one. But Auguste gets an easy one around rim, then Connaughton hits two free throws for a 35-27 Irish lead at 18:59.

Meyer tends to a bleeding Auguste elbow and helps clean up blood on the floor. As Connaughton waits at the free-throw line, Meyer gets a big cheer from the crowd.

1:30 p.m. – A Vasturia steal and score make it 37-27–the Irish are heating up.

1:32 p.m. — An Auguste lay-in puts the Irish up 43-32, then nine straight points by Northeastern make it interesting again. Auguste has 14 despite that early third foul.

1:34 p.m. – At the first media timeout of second half it’s 43-38 for the Irish.

1:37 p.m. – Northeastern gets a layup and free throw and at 14:07 it’s 43-41 for Notre Dame. Auguste on the give and go and gets a hoop at 13:45 plus a free throw (it’s good for 46-41).

1:40 p.m. – Auguste makes a slick spin move inside for 48-43–and then gets a rest at 13:07 with Colson in. Jackson’s reverse layup makes it 50-43. Then Grant is fouled at 12:15 and knocks down two free throws for 52-43.

1:43 p.m. – At the second media timeout at 11:53 with Irish up 52-43, Auguste checks back in.

1:46 p.m. – Auguste flies to hoop and is fouled–but he misses both free throws.

1:49 p.m. — Grant drives the lane successfully for a 54-43 Irish edge, then he’s double-teamed and finds Auguste (21 points now) for a 56-45 advantage.

1:51 p.m. – Scott Eatherington gets a rebound goal for the Huskies to make it 56-47 and Northeastern calls time at the 8:05 mark.

1:54 p.m. — Auguste finds Grant for an easy two. 58-47.

1:56 p.m. – The Irish rebound, Jackson grabs the loose ball in traffic, goes behind his back impressively and a spin move gets Auguste a huge dunk and the biggest reaction of day from the crowd. It’s 60-49 with 6:24 remaining. Auguste has 23.

2 p.m. – Jackson hits a three-pointer at 6:00–it’s the first Irish three-point attempt of the half.

2:01 p.m. – Auguste returns at 5:11.

2:02 p.m. – Connaughton drives and notches a reverse layup. 65-55. The final media timeout comes at 3:53 after an Auguste shot rims out and it’s 65-57.

2:05 p.m. – There’s another rendition of the “Victory March” as the timeout concludes.

2:08 p.m. – Jackson is poked in the eye on a loose ball and is fouled, and Meyer helps him off the court after he drops to his knees for a minute.

2:10 p.m. – At 2:01 Northeastern scores and cuts it to 65-61 as the Huskies call time. Jackson returns to the floor.

2:15 p.m. – With the Irish still up by four, Jackson is fouled at :44.5 but he misses the front end of the one and one. Northeastern gets a rebound goal at :32.5 and calls time, trailing the Irish by two.

Connaughton takes it out on the baseline and has to call time. He then fires a baseball pass full-court, but Jackson can’t catch up to it and the Huskies have the final chance.

The Irish play solid defense across the board, they foul up everything the Huskies try to set up, Northeastern never gets a shot and Notre Dame finally forces a steal. Auguste hits two free throws with :01.9 remaining and it ends 69-65 for the Irish.

It’s hard to argue with the numbers. The Irish shoot .574 from the floor (15 of 25 in the second half) and commit only seven turnovers (Northeastern has 16). Notre Dame is outrebounded 33-17 and finds only two offensive rebounds. Auguste finishes one short of his career high with 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting. Jackson has eight assists. Grant adds 17 points (seven of 12 from the floor) and five assists.

2:21 p.m. – Jacobson grabs Brey and Jackson for a CBS interview, while Grant and Auguste do quick radio interviews on the court.

2:25 p.m. – “The first one is always the hardest,” Brey says to Swarbrick as they walk into the locker room.

Says Brey to his players, “That was a big-time win. Don’t let anyone tell you you should have won by 15 or 20. Our defense helped get us there at the end. It’s like starting in Greensboro. How hard was that Miami win?

“We’re going to get out of the hotel tonight and go to Jerome Bettis’ place for dinner and see if there’s some good karma there.”

Meyer attends to Jackson’s eye, and Brey offers, “All I know is he’ll be ready to roll on Saturday.”

2:30 p.m. – Brey relaxes on the training table, waiting for Notre Dame’s interview session. “We sure started this tournament out with a thriller,” he says.

The players grab pizza boxes and take their pick from piles of bananas and green apples.

2:36 p.m. – The locker room is officially open for 30 minutes to media, as Brey, Auguste and Grant leave for the official NCAA interviews down the hall.

It’s a cramped area, as Jackson initially is swamped.

“We couldn’t get away from them,” Brey tells the media. “We were able to get stuff around the basket. I thought both teams defended the arc and made it a different kind of game.”

2:43 p.m. – Irish staffers monitor other scores and a #3 seed, Iowa State, loses.

2:58 p.m. – Auguste and Grant return and do a series of interviews in the hallway. Auguste tapes a segment with Sirius Radio.

3:07 p.m. – Brey returns to the locker room and spends 10 minutes with the media.

3:10 p.m. – “I’m making every comparison to Greensboro,” says Brey. “And I’m very coachable. We gave CBS a great start to the tournament.

3:15 p.m. – Brey heads out to catch part of the Butler-Texas game.

3:48 p.m. – At halftime of Butler-Texas, the Irish bus departs.

3:50 p.m. – While the bus rolls back to the Sheraton, word comes on the bus that another #3 seed, Baylor, has fallen.

Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” plays on the bus.

4 p.m. – The Irish arrive at the hotel–and they live to fight another day.

— by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director