Down go the Flames

Notre Dame again relied on its team defense and versatile, interchangeable parts to put down Liberty Sunday afternoon, 72-51 at the Purcell Pavilion.

There were but two similarities between Friday night's season-opening blowout over Georgia Southern and Sunday afternoon's 72-51 handling of visiting Liberty:

  1. Ben Hansbrough led the way offensively - as a scorer, creator of offense and steadying presence.
  2. The Irish rotation – an absurd 11 deep on Friday; then Sunday a more relevant 8-man crew – policed themselves for 40 minutes defensively, concentrating on nearly every trip down the floor.

The Flames arrived confident, fairly cohesive considering the early date of the contest, and just chippie enough defensively and on the glass to present the heavily favored Irish with a mild challenge after Friday night's laugher vs. overmatched Georgia Southern.

Despite a deliberate offensive approach, they were nonetheless unable to overcome the length and hustle of Notre Dame's defenders as the Irish stifled the visitors attack, holding Liberty to 10 points over the game's first eight minutes and just 12 more over the first half's final 12 to take a 43-22 advantage into the break.

"We came in this year stressing the effort we need on defense," said forward Carleton Scott who finished with six rebounds and two blocked shots in 25 minutes. "It helps that we have interchangeable parts (to rotate defensively), that we're all pretty much the same size except for Ben and Eric. We know we can score, but the defensive end is where we're going to win games."

The two non-interchangeable parts of whom Scott spoke are senior combo guard Ben Hansbrough – who will start every game at the point – and freshman true point guard Eric Atkins.

Hansbrough netted a game-high 19 points with another economical shooting effort, connecting on 7 of 13 shots including a 5 for 8 performance from long range. Hansbrough has hit 9 of 15 three-point field goal attempts to start the season.

"He's really let the game come to him," said Irish head coach Mike Brey post-game. "I've really been pleased with his pace; not running to the ball, but (rather) cutting off the ball."

Last year senior point guard Tory Jackson allowed Hansbrough to play off-the-ball for the majority of the contest. This season, the freshman Atkins has shown the early ability to do the same, contributing 7 assists vs. 3 turnovers through two games including a 4/1 ratio yesterday in 22 minutes off the bench.

"He's going to do nothing but improve," Hansbrough said of Atkins. "He's a very talented point guard and very steady. He'll continue to keep this assist-to-turnover ratio, and if he and I keep (a 4/1 ratio) that's going to be key.

Hansbrough echoed Brey's sentiments that Atkins intermittent presence deepens the senior's overall impact.

"It opens up me to attack a little more. Sometimes I'm on the wing a little more and coming off stuff instead of initiating the offense."

It's a mode of attack Brey believes will be tough to defend as the season progresses.

"When Ben catches it on the second or third pass, when he catches after the defense has been moved a little, he is really hard to keep out of the lane and hard to keep from making plays."

Atkins joined Hansbrough in double figures, scoring 10 points on 4-7 shooting including a 2-3 performance on open three-point shots.

Three-deep

While the 48-point performance from a six-man bench crew Friday night proved enjoyable for the home crowd and head coach, the more likely scenario from Brey's bench brigade this season will be a heavy contribution from the sixth-man Atkins; solid minutes from sophomore big man Jack Cooley, and, it is to be hoped - consistent play from swingman and accepted eighth-man in the rotation Joey Brooks.

In yesterday's second half, the trio provided a boost that guided the suddenly sluggish Irish through the close of the contest.

"I like the fact that I had to play some key guys more minutes. That's more like its going to be (during the conference season)," Brey noted of his six top players that logged between 22 and 34 minutes (both Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis). "I thought our three guys off the bench in the second half really gave us a good lift. We have to keep developing that."

Notre Dame fell listless, scoring just seven points in a 7-minute stretch in the second stanza, but was buoyed by the efforts of Brooks (4 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist in 9 second-half minutes) and Atkins' play-making presence as the freshman was able to create easy buckets for Scott (a one-handed slam), Hansbrough (an open 3) and himself (an offensive rebound and score).

"They're harder to defend, in some respects," noted Liberty coach Dale Layer who also faced the Irish last November.

Most Improved

The 2009-10 Notre Dame Most Improved award was shared by classmates Tim Abromaitis and Carleton Scott - the former for his breakout season after redshirting in 2008-09; the latter due to his invaluable efforts over the season's final two months.

The most improved free throw shooter at the program - possibly since mid-80s star Donald Royal progressed from freshman bricklayer to a mid-80s percentage shooter by his senior under Digger Phelps - is senior Tyrone Nash.

The Queens, NY native has improved from impossibly bad as a freshman, to merely poor as a sometimes contributing sophomore, to serviceable last season, to – at this point – realistically solid with the potential to finish a high volume season at the line in the 70-75 percent range.

Aside from raising his release point a solid two-feet (I wish I were exaggerating), how did Nash become so comfortable at the charity stripe?

"You don't want to know," Nash joked of the practice hours he put forth from 15-feet out over the last two seasons. "When I was at home and I'd want to lie around and watch TV and rest during the summer, my dad would say, ‘Go in the gym and shoot some free throws, Ty.

"And every day after practice Coach Slo (Anthony Solomon) is always on me to shoot some free throws. I know to help my teammates out this year I have to knock it down from the free throw line. They're going to put me there and I'm going to try to convert."

Nash converted on a career-best 12 of 15 Sunday afternoon en route to tying his career-best of 16 points to go along with 9 rebounds.

If the versatile Nash (the senior is a secondary ball-handler plus the team's chief post-pass receiver and facilitator) can continually score 16 points on four field goal attempts, the Irish offense will be nearly impossible to stop.

"Working it inside, trying to get them in foul trouble," Nash said of the standard approach the Irish hope to employ this winter. "We like to get (the opponent's) team fouls up early and try to use that as a weapon. It really paid off today."

So did hundreds of hours of practice from 15-feet out.


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