No. 16 Ranked Irish Continue to Impress

11-1 Notre Dame hammers Northern Illinois as it breaks for Christmas prior to Athletic Coast Conference action.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Zach Auguste started the contest with a dunk, five Notre Dame layups followed in succession, and the best shooting team in the country continued its offensive roll thereafter en route to a 91-66 win over Northern Illinois Monday night at the Purcell Pavilion.

The visiting, scrappy Huskies hung tough for the better part of the first half, tying the score at 21 near the midway point and trailed by just three, 28-25, before the hosts embarked on a 14-4 run sparked by sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson.

Jackson combined with classmate Steve Vasturia for a trio of backcourt steals that led to Irish layups, with Vasturia securing possession for his squad both times diving for loose balls he had created.

"Those were really big plays. And Steve Vasturia is just so rock-solid," said Irish head coach Mike Brey. "It's great to see guys getting on the floor. That's a habit we need…Demetrius's energy was really a key for us. He's just getting better and better and taking control of our group."

Jackson, who scored 16 points and added five assists, finished with four steals including two that led to thunderous open-court dunks by the six-foot-tall guard. He tipped two passes, blocked a shot and took a charge as well.

"That's a real strong personality developing that's going to help us," said Brey of Jackson, one of the nation's most improved players. "There's a lot to work with there."

Notre Dame bettered it's No. 1 ranked field goal percentage (55.3 percent entering the contest) by shooting at a 58.9 percent clip, courtesy a whopping 14 layups and four dunks -- that's 54 dunks (unofficially) on the season for the formerly ground-bound Irish to date who likewise drilled 12 of 28 from downtown.

Senior Pat Connaughton led the way with 21 points, hitting 8 of 12 field goal attempts including a 5 for 9 effort from long range. Connaughton added a game-high 10 boards, giving him 33 over the last three contests.

The team captain entered the contest ranked second in the ACC with 6.8 defensive rebounds per game, notching nine more tonight.

"I kind of expect that rebound total tonight out of myself every night and it's just a matter of going and getting it," said the six-foot-five swingman.

Brey considered Connaughton's efforts on the glass par for the course for his mentally tough, unique athlete.

"I think it's a combination of both. You're talking about a great athlete, the way he bounces. But then he's got a toughness and a nose (for the ball) and a relentlessness," said Brey. "We're spoiled watching him, and I'm spoiled coaching him. That's one guy you miss when he's gone, because he's the same every day. His demeanor is great every day.

"And we're going to need that demeanor because it won't all be parades when we come back. There's going to be some tough nights."

Help on the Way

Junior forward Zach Auguste continued his roll, scoring 16 points without a miss in seven field goal attempts, all either dunks (2) or layups (5). Vasturia added 10 and Jerian Grant 11 albeit during an off shooting night (2 for 9; 1-7 from beyond the arc).

Also re-joining the fray was sophomore forward V.J. Beachem, who last played on Nov. 29 due to a plantar fascia injury. Beachem scored eight poitns, hitting two of three from long range.

"Certainly I was thrilled to see V.J. come back," said Brey of his former sixth-man. "I thought he came back much more smoothly than expected. I think that was a great start for him, but there's a lot of ways we can put numbers on the board."

"Our ability to pass is such a strength to find different people."

Notre Dame is off until Dec. 30 when it returns home to face Hartford before re-starting Athletic Coast Conference play. The Irish won their first of 17 conference games when they took down Florida State, 83-63 on Dec. 13.

"I'm really proud of how we handled this first segment," said Brey of his squad during a run to 11-1 that included a notable win against Michigan State. "One thing I did tell them is I need more from them when they come back, because we're in ACC-regular season mode. And I also told them I don't know if I've been more excited about having a team play the ACC season than this group. I can't wait to get back with them Saturday night.

"It's a heck of a class to teach every day."

His class's workload will increase significantly when ACC foes come calling. The league currently houses No. 2 Duke, No.4 Louisville, No. 5 Virginia, and No. 20 North Carolina in addition to the No. 16-ranked Irish. Notre Dame plays a home-and-home with Duke and must travel to both Louisville and North Carolina while also playing at tradition rival Pittsburgh and hosting another former Big East foe, Syracuse.

"The sense of urgency has been pretty darn high, but we need it higher," said Brey. "That's something I have to demand even more when we come back so they know, 'Wow, that is a little different than that first segment (non conference play).'"


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