Jan. 10, 2016

Sunday Brunch: Panthers Deliver Solid Impression of Irish

By John Heisler

Tell Mike Brey his team will score 82 points against an opponent that normally gives up only 64.

Tell the University of Notre Dame head men’s basketball coach his players will not commit a single turnover in the first half and only three in the entire game.

Tell Brey his Irish will shoot 54 percent from the field and connect on nine of 20 attempts from beyond the arc (that’s 45 percent).

Tell him that his star player, junior guard Demetrius Jackson, will go for 26 points (the most he’s scored in an Atlantic Coast Conference game and one off his career high) and six assists and make five three-pointers, several from way back.

Tell Brey his players will block six shots.

Tell Brey all those things will come true (against a team that this year averages winning by 21 points) and on most nights he will be grinning from ear to ear.

But not Saturday.

Not on a late afternoon in Purcell Pavilion where the visitors from Pittsburgh started both the first and second half with the Irish seemingly back on their heels.

The Panthers led 13-0 and 28-10, and it took a rather-amazing-in-itself Notre Dame rally to pull the home team within four late in the opening half-and with all the momentum in the building on its side.

Then Jamie Dixon’s Pitt team did it again.

Even with 6-9 junior Michael Young planted on the bench (with three fouls) for the first 10 minutes of the second half (after Young hit seven of nine shots and scored 18 points in only 15 first-half minutes), the Panthers launched themselves into a 23-11 run to start the second period. That was good enough to build a 72-54 advantage with 10:49 remaining.

This time it was 6-8 reserve junior Sheldon Jeter who inflicted the most pain. Jeter came in averaging 8.3 points per game–yet he torched the home team for 14 second-half points while connecting on six of his nine shots.

And that didn’t even count 6-7 junior Jamel Artis, who had 16 points for Pittsburgh in the first half alone (he finished with 19).

All that was good enough to enable 24th-ranked Pittsburgh to jump back on its charter flight with an 86-82 victory, a 14-1 overall mark (only a home loss to Purdue in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge), a 3-0 ACC record, its 10th straight win and its first on an opponent’s home floor.

Interestingly, the Panthers did it by doing their best Notre Dame impression. Normally Pitt storms the building with a set of wide bodies (that looks as if Dixon drafted from the school’s football team) and tries to jam the ball down the other team’s throats. And, make no mistake, the visitors weren’t slow in that aspect, outrebounding the Irish by 10.

But at least on this day in South Bend, this Pittsburgh team looked more like the Irish normally do, firing in jump shots from all corners-and particularly from the three-point line. This is not your father’s Panther skill set.

Pitt hit seven of its 11 long-distance attempts in the first half (four of six by Artis), with four different players connecting from that area. They ended up 10 (matching a season high) of 19 in that category.

And despite all that, darned if the Irish didn’t somehow claw their way back into it again in the final seconds-down only three before a Matt Ryan three-pointer bounced away with 15 seconds to go. Even Brey admitted the climb back in each half had been so steep, he wasn’t even sure how his team had earned that late opportunity.

If Irish fans (and Brey) believe the future success of this Notre Dame team depends on its ability to defend, they came into this contest also believing progress had been made in the last week and maybe more could be banked on Saturday. After a tough afternoon a week ago against an unbeaten Virginia team, Brey’s charges made strides in winning big at Boston College, holding the Eagles to 33 percent shooting-ironically, on a night the Irish also scored 82 points.

And, given how Pittsburgh historically patrols the lane, it wasn’t surprising that Irish coaches listed “One and Done” as one of the defensive priorities for the afternoon (in fact, they put it in capital letters for effect). “Can we do this?” Brey asked of his team moments before the game. “Remember what we talked about-it all starts on defense,” noted Jackson.

And, truth be told, Notre Dame did the job in that statistical category-but not in the way intended. There were no second shots to be had-or required-by the visitors because they hit everything in sight to begin the game. Sixteen minutes into the game the Irish had only four rebounds-mostly because Pitt never seemed to miss.

Maybe Notre Dame should have known. Young backed Bonzie Colson down into the lane on the very first possession, made the shot and earned a free throw. It was 3-0 15 seconds in and it didn’t get better for the home team for a long while.

One and done? It did work out that way because Pittsburgh hit its first six shots and the Irish missed their first four. A Steve Vasturia hoop at 16:48 made it 13-2. The visitors finally missed their first shot at the 15:41 mark. At the first media timeout the Panthers had hit eight of nine shots, and Young already had 11 points (he ended up earning a rest on the Pitt bench after accounting for 14 points in the game’s first six and a half minutes).

Dixon’s roster hit five of seven field goals over one stretch and built the lead to 28-10. The Panthers didn’t commit a foul until almost 10 minutes into the game (and Notre Dame did not attempt a free throw until 1:22 of the opening half). But the Irish did not disappear.

Jackson threw in a three-point bomb at 11:31, a second at 10:20 and a third at 9:40 (the last of those made it 33-22)-and the Panthers had to call timeout. At the 7:37 media timeout, the teams had combined to shoot an ultra-efficient 23 of 35 from the floor (with one combined turnover).

Young earned his third foul with 33.9 seconds left in the first period and Notre Dame went on a 7-0 run over 50 seconds to make it 47-43 just before the break. The crowd was into it.

“We’re right where we want to be,” Brey encouraged his group at half. “I like how we’re operating offensively. But we’ve got to get off to a better start. We’ve gotta be men.”

Both teams hit 17 first-half shots. Both teams hit seven first-half three-point goals.

But the great second-half start did not happen for the Irish. Pittsburgh hit four straight shots-even with Young sitting out-and accounted for 11 of the first 13 points after the break. Jeter scored 11 of the Panthers’ first 21 second-half points. He and Young both finished with season highs in points (25 and 18, respectively).

By the time Young reentered at the 9:41 mark of the second half, his teammates had built the lead back to 72-56.

But the Irish weren’t done yet. A 7-0 run over a 1:06 span forced Dixon to call time with his team on top 73-64 and 8:04 remaining. V.J. Beachem blocked a Jeter shot, the Irish went on a 12-1 run and Pitt missed five straight shots. Zach Auguste (12 points, five rebounds) fouled out at 5:53 and still Notre Dame climbed back in.

Beachem found a streaking Vasturia (13 points, four assists) for a lay-in and the Irish trailed only 79-77 with 1:58 left. The Irish were on a 9-0 run and Pitt had misfired on eight of its last nine shot attempts.

But it wasn’t to be. Colson gave the Irish a chance with 11 points and six rebounds in the second half. But Pitt got a huge hoop from senior guard James Robinson (he shot only two for 10) to push the lead to four and the visitors managed to close it out at the line.

Brey loved the way his team played and battled for the final 10 minutes at both ends of the floor. “But we’ve gotta start that way and we’ve gotta get tougher,” he told his players.

Dixon liked the way his crew hung on: “We were up 18 but things are gonna happen. We withstood all different kinds of runs.”

Offered Brey to the media, “We were scoring enough, but ….”

The game marked only the fourth time in the 16-season Brey era at Notre Dame that the Irish have scored at least 82 points (in regulation) on their home floor and not emerged with a victory (also a 92-88 loss to #12 Syracuse in 2002-03, an 88-82 defeat against #24 Syracuse in 2005-06 and an 87-85 loss to Loyola Marymount in 2009-10).

“When a team makes shots on you early, it kind of breaks your spirit,” suggested the Irish head coach. “And we’ve been that team.”

The road continues Wednesday against a Georgia Tech team that just happened to knock off fourth-rated Virginia Saturday.

“But I love our group,” concluded Brey. “And we’ve got a lot of growth left.”

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:

— Saturday Brunch: Seven Straight Without a Loss? That’s the Irish Ice Tally

— 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:

— Men’s Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation:

— Australia Rugby Visit Turns into Great Sharing of Sports Performance Practices:

— Bud Schmitt Doesn’t Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium:

— Remembering Bob Kemp: Notre Dame Lacrosse Family Honors Devoted Father

— Community Service a Record-Setting Event for Irish Athletics in 2014-15: