- There'll be no shortage of crisp ball movement, dead-eye 3-point shooting, and unselfish, team basketball for the new, and possibly improved Irish this winter.
- More important, and less familiar to those that have followed the Irish over the past decade, Mike Brey's 11th Notre Dame basketball team will play with a defensive conscious.
For the better part of 40 minutes, every Georgia Southern shot was contested; every miss (and there were many) attacked by more than two Irish board men, and key to the rout, seemingly every Notre Dame offensive possession in the decisive first half resulted in a bucket as the Irish roared to 98-61 season-opening victory over the defenseless Eagles.
It was similar to the type of basketball that transformed the rudderless, disinterested Irish group into Big East semi-finalists late last season…only this time, no clock was burned in the process.
The like-sized Irish (four starters stand 6'8") fired the ball to open teammates both inside and out, dishing out 14 assists on their first 20 field goals while taking commanding leads of 11-0, 18-3, and 30-3 before the Eagles notched their first field goal at the 11:55 mark of the first half to cut the home team's advantage to an obscene 37-5.
Each of the eight Irish regulars scored (on assisted buckets) in the first nine minutes; the Irish entered the free throw bonus with 15:37 remaining in the opening stanza.
"We're very efficient offensively," said head coach Mike Brey. "We had a lot of different guys handling the ball tonight…that's something to build on, but I'm glad we turn it around quick and play Sunday (vs. Liberty)."
Smothered and CoveredThough the Eagles were inept offensively, Notre Dame's defensive desire that helped turn into instant offense at the other end keyed the rout:
- Multiple Irish players, including freshman Eric Atkins and senior Tim Abromaitis absorbed charges from out-of-control ball-handlers in the paint
- Atkins ball pressure out top resulted in a 5-second call
- The Irish employed 11 players in the first 20 minutes, forced 12 first half turnovers and enjoyed a dominant 23-11 team rebounding advantage vs. the undersized visitors en route to a 64-23 halftime advantage.
The Irish limited their Southern Conference foe to a 5-23 shooting performance in the first half including a 1-10 effort from beyond the arc.
I cannot say enough about (Mike Brey's) team, his program and his class," offered Eagles second-year head coach Charlton Young post-game. "I have a bunch of young babies straight from the farm, and (Notre Dame) has a bunch of old men with about one-thousand games (played) between them." Notre Dame's five senior starting five overwhelmed Young's squad from the outset, burying 20 of their first 29 shots en route to a 44-point lead, 58-14, with just over seven minutes remaining.
When redshirt-freshman Tom Knight scored his first career basket with 1:39 to play in the first half, every Irish player had appeared, scored and grabbed at least one rebound in the game's first 20 minutes. Eight of the 11 contributors also registered at least one assist over that span.
The team's four starters sans its first-half and game-leading scorer Hansbrough contributed 19 points in the first 20 minutes, while Brey's oft-maligned bench brigade chipped in with 27 over that same span, including a career-high 9 by sophomore Jack Cooley who earned 10 first-half minutes.
Brey noted of the seemingly plodding Cooley that the sophomore is actually an underrated athlete.
"He's unbelievably athletic," Brey said of the sophomore who thrilled the Irish crowd with a vicious, eye-opening dunk on a feed from Atkins early in the first half.
"He was jumping off one foot, like he did on the dunk, in The Pit (Notre Dame's secondary practice facility) and touching the top of the backboard," Brey added of Cooley, of whom few fans or media members had previously noted a speck of athleticism.
"He's a great two-hand rebounder and really good with the ball. Guys that try to talk him into thread-the-needle passes…he turns them down all the time."
Cooley finished with 11 points and 6 rebounds in 16 minutes. His partner on the highlight dunk, the freshman Atkins, scored 9 points in 22 minutes on 4-4 shooting while adding three rebounds and three assists. At least two more of the true point guards slick passes were not converted into buckets under the rim.
"Fabulous," Brey state of his freshman sixth-man's first outing. "For a young guy, his focus on a daily basis is excellent. He is really sharp."
After 16 first-half points, Ben Hansbrough finished as the game-high scorer for the Irish as well, netting 20 points including back-to-back three-point buckets in a 23-second span, the second of which propelled the senior transfer over the 1,000-point plateau for his college career (at Mississippi State and Notre Dame).
"Where Ben's made great strides is letting the game come to him," Brey offered of his combo-guard. "That group (the seniors) is so trusting of each other that if they give it up, they'll get it back when they come through. He's truly playing like a 5th-year senior guard and his tempo's better."
Georgia Southern's glib Coach Young concurred, offering a joking, "Hansbrough's not fair," post-game.
The youthful Eagles deserved a better opening matchup than one vs. the skilled, senior-laden and confident Irish. The visitors received a second half boost from freshman Eric Ferguson who led all scorers with 26 points including 15 in the second half.
Notre Dame's free-flowing offense briefly hit a snag in the second stanza as the Irish repeatedly missed open looks from long range (finishing 8-26 from beyond the arc), as well as coming up empty on a handful of semi-contested forays to the bucket.
After 62 points in the first 20 minutes, Brey's Irish managed just five in the second half's opening six before a Tim Abromaitis 3-pointer extended the Irish lead to 70-34.
Abromaitis struggled, hitting just 2 of 13 shots (the other was a dunk) though he joined Hansbrough and Cooley as the only home court players in double digits.
Pressing for the bulk of the contest, Georgia Southern never drew to within 30 points of the suddenly deep and focused Irish in the second half. The home crowd, however, missed its final chance to cheer when the Irish held the ball mercifully up top rather than attempt to score their 100th point of the contest over the game's last 20 seconds.
Those boos might be the only jeers cascading from the Purcell Pavilion stands this season if the Irish match their first-game intensity level over the forthcoming months.
Numbers and Notes
- Freshman guard Jerian Grant was the only player not to appear in the contest. "He's got a stress reaction in the shin," Brey offered. "We got an X-ray and MRI last week and it's an old stress fracture that's been healed, but there's some soreness and tenderness, so we're going to be really careful with it. We'll really evaluate it here for a couple of days."
- Every Irish player, including walk-on Tom Kopko who played just three minutes, corralled at least one rebound. Kopko didn't score, but eight Notre Dame players tallied between 5 and 9 points including freshman Alex Dragicevich who pumped in 9 during his first college contest.
- Withheld from action last season, sophomore center Tom Knight scored 7 points (3-3 from the field; 1-1 from the charity stripe) while adding four rebounds and a blocked shot in 9 minutes.
- Sophomore swingman Joey Brooks notched a career-high three steals to go with seven points and three boards.
- Senior transfer Scott Martin played his first regular season game since March 2008 (as a freshman at Purdue). The starter pressed a bit and his jitters showed during a 2-7 shooting effort that included three open misses from beyond the arc. Martin did deliver 7 points and 5 boards; his spinning dribble and finish in the second half offered a portent and gave Irish fans a glimpse of the offensive skill set so praised in the off-season by his head coach.
- Notre Dame drained 24 of 27 free throws. Brey had offered previously the team's goal is to lead the NCAA in free throw percentage this season.
- Notre Dame's next contest is this Sunday at 2:00 PM vs. the Liberty Flames.