Kelly would have been proud of the school's "other" team Monday night, as Mike Brey's undermanned group gutted out a critical win vs. an athletic, veteran Detroit team, 59-53 at the Purcell Pavilion.
Instrumental in the victory was Pat Connaughton, the team's only (current) scholarship freshman who provided an above-the-rim presence the Irish desperately needed, soaring for 10 points and nine rebounds in just 20 minutes (17 in the second half).
"Certainly you saw what he does on the backboard; he's fearless," Brey said. "He's been practicing that way. There aren't many guys that can make a play like that."
"That" is a raw wing athlete rare to South Bend. Connaughton secured eight of his nine boards in the final 15 minutes of second half; each of his 10 points were the result of moves to the bucket (4-5 shooting with a missed 3-point attempt and 2-3 from the charity stripe).
"We knew that if we kept them to one and done or as close to one and done as we could, we would win," said the high-flying frosh. "These guys tell me to play my game and part of my game is rebounding. I tried to attack the glass and help out any way I could. "
Detroit built an early lead on the strength of a 4-for-4 long range shooting effort by star point guard Ray McCallum. The coach's son scored 12 points in the game's first seven minutes, and then was held without a field goal of any type until two garbage-time buckets at the game's conclusion – the result of a defensive effort by 2011 Irish glue guy, Joey Brooks.
"Coach told me at the beginning of the season that he wanted me (to guard) every team's best player," said Brooks, who also guarded 6'8" 245-pound Paul Crosby on Saturday. "I knew coming in that Ray (McCallum) was a great guard, and that's a good challenge for me. I know that there are going to be plenty of BIG EAST guards that will come in here and try to do everything he did.
"I really relied on sliding my feet to guard him," Brooks continued. "When he got a shot off, I wanted to be there. I didn't want him to get his feet set to shoot. I just wanted to have a body on him at all times."
Brooks scored a career-high 13 points though they came the hard way, hitting 3 of 9 shots (mostly contested drives) and 7 of 13 free throws. He added nine rebounds and a pair of assists – one a shot-clock beating beauty – in 35 huge minutes.
"Awesome," Brey said of Brooks' efforts. "I couldn't be more thrilled for a guy who's battled like heck to find his niche in our program. He's guarding, screening; being the rock (defensively)."
The rock offensively, and the team's most important player this season was sophomore point guard Eric Atkins, who scored 13 points and dished out 4 assists in 39 contested minutes.
"We did a great job responding to adversity in the first half," Atkins said of a pair of eight-point deficits. "They came in very excited, had a swagger about them."
The road aheadNotre Dame survived two of its first four games without its best player, Tim Abromaitis, who'll return November 21 for a matchup with solid Missouri in Kansas City. The contest is the "semi-finals" of the CBE (College Basketball Experience) Classic – last night's contest was technically the first round (South Bend Regional) though team's aren't eliminated in this tournament's format until the semi-final rounds.
Notre Dame will entertain Sam Houston State and Delaware State this Wednesday and Friday, respectively, as part of the CBE's regional rounds.
The winner/loser of the Notre Dame/Missouri contest will advance to face the same from the Georgia/California battle, also played at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
"That's a great win for our group," Brey said. "I don't know if I've been prouder of a group given who they are and trying to find themselves to beat a very good basketball team. We really had to defend and get through tough stuff through the game…certainly something to build on defensively."
After Detroit began 5 for 6 from long range (over the first 14 minutes) the Irish perimeter defense negated all but three-point offering by the visiting Titans – a debilitating 1 for 15 finish.
Irish center Jack Cooley finished with seven points and eight rebounds in 22 minutes, battling foul trouble throughout. Sophomore guard Jerian Grant added 11 points including a 3 for 6 effort from long range. Grant hit the game's most important shot: a dagger wing three-pointer that extended Notre Dame's lead from four to seven, 54-47, with 2:30 remaining.
"When he hit that in front of our bench," Brey began of Grant's cold-blooded triple, "when we recruited him, I envisioned him doing that."
The undersized Irish will need more of the same from Grant, Brooks, Connaughton, and the rest of what should be an eight-man rotation – with the necessary aid of two more – when Abromaitis returns for a taxing non-conference slate that includes the CBE foes listed above, plus Maryland, Indiana, and Gonzaga before Big East play.