As it turns out, they probably wouldn’t have been able to win with him.
Turning to a post-less lineup over the final 15:32, the No. 12 Fighting Irish (17-2, 5-1) overcame a 12-point deficit with 15 minutes remaining en route to 46 second-half points and a 75-70 victory over the Hurricanes (12-5, 2-2).
“We found a rhythm, which helped us on both ends,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey of the unit that featured 6-foot-1 Demetrius Jackson, 6-foot-5 Jerian Grant, 6-foot-5 Steve Vasturia, 6-foot-5 Pat Connaughton and 6-foot-8 V.J. Beachem.
“We could switch everything defensively and not worry about getting distorted on ball screens, and then it really spreads the floor out for drives and kicks to shooters.”
After converting just 2-of-16 from three-point range, Notre Dame made 7-of-12 long-range shots down the stretch while Grant, Jackson, Vasturia and Connaughton penetrated the lane, finished at the hoop, or kicked to an open shot.
Grant finished with eight assists, five of which led directly to three-pointers, while totaling a team-high 23 points on 8-of-10 shooting following a three-game stretch in which he scored just 26 points combined.
“Offensively, when you have five shooters out there, we’re going to get the looks, spread the floor and we’re going to be able to drive,” said Grant, who was 8-of-28 from the field in those previous three games. “If they helped off shooters, you kick it out for open shots like we did.”
Connaughton (10 points, 11 rebounds) led the charge up front as Miami head coach Jim Larranaga was forced to downshift to a smaller lineup, which played into Notre Dame’s offensive-minded hands.
“We told our players that this is a very different game,” Larranaga said. “The last game we played against Duke, they have a big guy that they go to all the time. This was not that kind of game.”
Seven-foot center Tonye Jekiri averages 7.9 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, and he finished with eight points and 13 rebounds against the Irish. But he played just 24 minutes because the Hurricanes had to match up with Notre Dame, who shot a blistering 57.1 percent (16-of-28) from the field in the second half.
“It was as much a defensive move because your big guys are up there ‘showing’ on ball screens, and then they get distorted,” Brey said. “Your big guys never play post defense against Miami. To have Bonzie (Colson) and Zach doing that all the time wasn’t the best.”
And so Colson – who made his first start after playing such a valuable back-up role at Georgia Tech – and Auguste played a combined 21 minutes, 16 of which came in the first half.
“When we shift to five guards and people try to shift to play with us, the advantage is us because we’re used to playing that way,” Connaughton said. “They’re trying to counter us by following our lead.
“Just space it, move and cut. A majority of the time, you’re going to have a mismatch somewhere. With a team like ours, we’re able to pass the ball and cut so efficiently and effectively, it’s tough to defend.”
Notre Dame never led in the first half, pulling to within one point three times – including a 30-29 halftime deficit -- after trailing 20-12 with 7:31 remaining.
Connaughton and Beachem had several opportunities to tie or put the Irish ahead in the first half, but a 2-of-13 shooting effort from three-point range kept the score in Miami’s favor. In fact, the Hurricanes never trailed until the 9:30 mark of the second half when a Vasturia bucket gave the Irish a 52-50 lead.
The game would be tied three times the rest of the way, but Miami never led again as a 15-2 Irish run worked the crowd of 9,149 into a frenzy and tilted the advantage heavily in Notre Dame’s favor.
After using tremendous defense to limit Georgia Tech to 6-of-23 shooting in the second half Wednesday night in Atlanta, the Irish weren’t able to duplicate the feat against the Hurricanes, a much more skilled offensive team than the Yellow Jackets.
Miami converted 14-of-26 shots (53.8 percent) in the second half, but the Irish forced the Hurricanes from their bread-and-butter which, against Duke in a 16-point road victory by the ‘Canes Tuesday night, was guards Angel Rodriguez and Manu Lecomte, who combined for 47 points against the Blue Devils.
Against the Irish, Rodriguez was 1-of-10 and Lecomte was 1-4 for a combined seven points in 46 minutes.
“Demetrius Jackson took that as a big-time challenge,” said Brey of his match-up on Rodriguez. “Rodriguez never got going, and I give Demetrius a lot of credit for that.”
The Irish also got a spark from Beachem, who converted 5-of-11 from the field and 3-of-7 from three-point range to finish with 13 points.
“Beachem is starting to blossom into a more mentally and physically tough player,” said Brey of the Irish sophomore, who is shooting 51.7 percent from three-point range (29-of-56).
Sheldon McClellan finished with 17 points to lead the Hurricanes. Ja’Quan Newton (16 points) and James Palmer (11) came off the bench to give Miami a 32-17 bench-scoring edge.
But with the game on the line, Notre Dame’s offensive efficiency was too much for Miami to handle.
“A lot of times, three-point shooting can be contagious,” Larranaga said. “One guy makes a couple in a row, the next guy makes one and then everybody thinks, ‘Today’s my day.’”
Saturday not only was Notre Dame’s day, but also former Irish great Tom Hawkins (1956-59), the school’s No. 9 all-time leading scorer and No. 1 rebounder. Hawkins joined Austin Carr, Adrian Dantley, Luke Harangody and Digger Phelps in Notre Dame’s Ring of Honor.
Hawkins set the Notre Dame record for rebounds in 1959 with 1,318, a number that still sits atop the Irish list.