Notre Dame, Ind. – Wake Forest’s 41 first-half points were enough to flip Notre Dame’s switch at halftime.
Leading by just two points at the break, Notre Dame shot to a double-digit lead 1:52 into the second half, built a 19-point advantage, let it slide to single-digits briefly, and then cruised to an 88-75 victory Tuesday night at Purcell Pavilion.
“Certainly the difference was the start of the (second) half,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, whose squad out-scored the Demon Deacons, 27-10, in the first 8:17 of the final 20 minutes.
“We got into a good segment of defending, and then we got out in transition to kind of give us breathing room. We were excited to play.”
Playing for the first time in seven days, the Irish (23-4, 11-3) missed 10 of their first 11 shots, but gradually found the range, connecting on 11-of-26 three-pointers (42.3 percent) to surpass the 40 percent mark for the 15th time in 27 games.
Notre Dame was spectacular from the free-throw line as well, converting an astonishing 27-of-28 (96.4 percent) after running into some snags in recent games, particularly in the second half.
“I’m thrilled with what we did at the foul line,” Brey said. “We really spent a lot of time getting reps at the foul line the last week because I just think we should be a better free-throw shooting team than we have been. Hopefully, this jump starts us from the line.”
Notre Dame’s sluggish start was directly tied to nemesis Devin Thomas, the 6-foot-9, 245-pound Demon Deacon junior who scored 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting at Wake Forest last year, and then added another 19 points and 10 rebounds against the Irish in the ACC tournament.
Thomas scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the first half alone Tuesday night, but was quiet during Notre Dame’s furious run to start the second half before finishing with 26 points and 11 rebounds.
“Obviously, keeping him off the backboard and (fronting) him,” explained Austin Torres of the approach against Thomas. “Just be in better position because we know he’s going to go back to his left.”
Auguste would finish with 12 points (with 8-of-9 shooting from the line) and four rebounds in 14 minutes while Colson tossed in eight points in 13 minutes. Combined with Torres, the trio put up 25 points and 12 rebounds while Thomas was doing his damage inside.
Notre Dame placed five players in double figures, including the ever-spectacular Jerian Grant, who scored 24 points, dished out 10 assists and had five steals in 40 minutes of action.
“The stuff (Grant) was doing with the ball is amazing,” Brey said. “He was in one heckuva rhythm. He was chomping at the bit to play because when you become a fifth-year senior, you’re really tired of two practices in a row. You want to play games, and I don’t blame him.”
There was concern with the health of senior captain Pat Connaughton, who has been battling the stomach flu since the weekend. Connaughton struggled shooting the basketball, missing five of his six shots. But he still finished with 13 points and four rebounds in 30 minutes.
“He had an I.V. in all day today,” said Brey of Connaughton. “I think he ate one chicken breast and played 30 minutes. The guy’s a stud.
“Hopefully, we can get this thing cured. It was a stomach virus. He did not practice until Monday, and he woke up sick again today. But he was texting me all day, ‘I’ll be there, coach.’”
Steve Vasturia scored 12 points and defended Wake Forest’s leading scorer, Codi Miller-McIntyre, limiting him to 10 points, and V.J. Beachem tossed in 10 points of his own off the bench for his first double-digit game in six.
The outcome proved contrary to the first half that saw the game tied nine times with an incredible 15 lead changes. Wake Forest (12-15, 4-10) never led by more than four, and once the Irish wrestled the lead away on a drive with 2.4 seconds left in the first half by Grant, Notre Dame never trailed again.
“We were getting rebounds, getting in transition and getting stops,” said Grant, who converted all eight of his free throws. “We pushed the ball up the court and we had guys spotting up at the three-point line, which allows me to attack.
“We talked about getting stops,” added Grant of the halftime chatter. “Forty-three points is good enough for us, and once we get stops, we know our offense is going to flow.”
The Irish lost the in the scoring-in-the-paint statistic, 44-24, but that was partly by design. Six-foot-10 freshman Dinos Mitoglou – who came into the game having converted 21-of-36 three-pointers in the previous five games – was 0-of-3 from beyond the arc. Wake Forest made just 6-of-18 from three-point range.
“I was hoping that the law of averages would kick in and (Mitoglou) would come back down to earth,” Brey said.
Notre Dame returns to action Saturday at Boston College (9-15, 1-11), the ACC’s last-place team.