Feb. 14, 2016
By John Heisler
Some of the similarities proved downright striking:
— A week ago, the University of Notre Dame men’s basketball team trailed by 15 points with 2:38 left in the first half against top-rated North Carolina-and the deficit remained at least double figures through the 17-minute mark of the second period.
— Saturday night against 13th-ranked Louisville, Mike Brey’s squad faced an 11-point deficit with 15:43 to go in the game.
— Last week against the Tar Heels, the Irish mostly struggled early on offense other than one player, Zach Auguste (13 points, seven rebounds in the first 20 minutes).
— Saturday, those same Irish again mostly struggled on offense early on, other than one player-this time all-star guard Demetrius Jackson (20 points in the first half, including five three-pointers).
— Last week against the Tar Heels, the Irish shot 25 percent over the first 12 minutes. Saturday against the Cardinals Notre Dame, other than Jackson, hit only six of 18 first-half shots.
— Opposing defenses? North Carolina confounded Notre Dame in the first half to such a degree that Brey allowed he had no idea who the team was he was coaching. In the first half against Louisville, the Cardinals played with in-your-face aggression, blocked five shots, altered others and generally seemed to keep everyone other than Jackson out of any sort of offensive rhythm.
— Second-half comebacks? Wow, these were a couple of doozies. In both cases, it became a matter of Notre Dame finally finding itself on offense and generally playing better defense.
— Against Carolina, Jackson had 19 points in the second half–almost perfectly matching his 20 in the first half Saturday versus Louisville.
— Last week, a Bonzie Colson hoop at the 6:34 mark put the Irish on top of the Tar Heels for good. Saturday, it was a V.J. Beachem three-pointer at 5:16 that handed Brey’s crew a lead it would not give up.
All of that meant that when Brey and his Irish woke up Sunday morning the Atlantic Coast Conference standings showed they had nine league wins and nobody had more (North Carolina and Virginia also have nine). That’s what a 71-66 victory over the 13th-rated team in the country does.
Many former Irish stars came out for this one Saturday at Purcell Pavilion-Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton (both enjoying the NBA All-Star Game break) and Eric Atkins sat in the front row across from the Notre Dame bench, and David Rivers and Chris Thomas sat in the row behind them (they all received standing ovations when they were introduced). That quintet combined for 8,878 points for Notre Dame-and when the current Irish struggled early Saturday, Brey had to wonder if he could smuggle one of two of those guys into a gold uniform for a possession or two.
“Those guys (Grant, Connaughton and Atkins) helped train the nucleus of this team,” noted Brey after the game. “I’m glad they got to watch it.”
Notre Dame observed a pregame moment of silence both for Ingrid Williams, a 1993 Notre Dame graduate and wife of former Irish all-star Monty Williams (she died Wednesday in Oklahoma City from injuries suffered in a Tuesday car accident) and for John Lattner, the former Notre Dame football great (he died Saturday morning) who also played basketball for the Irish.
After that, the Cardinals set about putting on a show. Rick Pitino’s club trapped and pressed full-court, generally slowing the onset of the Irish offense, and that seemed to be just enough to keep Notre Dame off-kilter.
The Irish shooting over one stretch showed one of nine and two of 12. Louisville benefited from 15 first-half bench points (to none for the Irish). Seven Cardinal players notched at least four points in the first 20 minutes, while other than Jackson’s 20, no one managed more than six (Colson) for Notre Dame.
Pitino showed up for the second half minus his tie. Maybe he likes the Brey look. Or maybe he had a vision that Brey’s Irish would rev things up after intermission, exactly the way they did the Saturday before.
After starting zero for five from the field, Beachem grabbed a rebound and leaped ever so high to lay the ball in off the glass and cut the deficit to 54-49 at the 11:25 mark. That got the Notre Dame crowd into the action (and prompted a Louisville timeout). Jackson followed with his first basket of the second half to slice it to three and that really got the fans jazzed.
Now it had become a flat-out free for all.
Louisville came into the game sixth in the nation in scoring defense (now 60.3 points per game allowed). But it would be Brey’s guys in gold who earned their stripes in that category down the stretch.
Two free throws by Louisville’s Ray Spalding built the visitors’ advantage back to six at 61-55 at the 8:53 stoppage-and Spalding’s layup at 6:36 marked the Cardinals’ final lead at 63-62.
From there, Pitino’s red-clad group didn’t score a single point for a 6:20 span-while Notre Dame hit seven straight shots over one late stretch. At the end, Louisville had hit but one of its last 10 shots-and two of its final 12.
Beachem’s three-pointer pushed the Irish ahead for good, Auguste scored on a monster dunk on a nifty give-and-go assist by Jackson-and Jackson and Auguste each knocked down a pair of free throws in the final 25 seconds. Louisville’s last-gasp, three-point attempt to tie with five seconds left by Damion Lee (he led the Cards with 13 points) did not connect.
Looking for defense? The Irish held Louisville to 28 percent second-half shooting (seven of 25) and ended with a 41-29 edge on the boards (12 rebounds by Auguste, 10 by Colson), including a 23-12 margin after halftime.
Meanwhile Vasturia nonchalantly threw in 15 second-half points (on six of eight shooting) for Notre Dame.
All five former Irish players joined the current group in front of the student section to sing the Notre Dame alma mater arm in arm-and there were hugs and other exchanges all around.
“This group has developed an amazing trait of believing they can get it done,” said Brey. “I just want to ride it into March.”
There’s an old Elton John song from the 1970s titled “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.”
One of John’s lines goes, “I may use a little muscle to get what I need.”
With Auguste and Colson doing the tough stuff on the boards, and Jackson, Vasturia and Beachem doing their thing-and with all them flat-out competing when it counts-the Irish are making their move.
At least for two Saturday nights in succession at Purcell Pavilion, it was as good as it gets for Notre Dame.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.
Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for UND.com titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:
— Troy Murphy: His Relentless Yet Fun-Loving Approach Did the Trick
— Sunday Brunch: Irish Officially Hot . . . But Shhh
— Sunday Brunch: Panthers Deliver Solid Impression of Irish
— DeShone Kizer: North of Confident, South of Cocky
— 2016 Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame-Ohio State Preview
— Joyce Scholars: Connecting the Irish and Buckeyes
— One Final Version: 20 Questions (and answers) on Notre Dame Football
— Top 10 Things Learned About the Irish So Far in 2015:
— Brey’s Crew Receives Rings, Prepared to Raise Banner-and Moves On
— Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers: