LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Playing on the road in the ACC? Maybe it’s not as difficult as it’s cracked up to be.
After losing eight of nine conference road games a year ago, Notre Dame (25-5, 13-4) completed its regular-season road trips with a 71-59 victory over Louisville in convincing fashion. It was Notre Dame’s seventh ACC road win in nine games.
“Wasn’t I the guy that said it’s harder to win on the road in the ACC (than the Big East)?” asked Irish head coach Mike Brey rhetorically. “Wasn’t I whining about that before we joined the league?
“To get to seven league wins on the road is powerful. When you have good guards, you’ve got a shot to win in March.”
January and February, too. With the victory Wednesday night, Notre Dame clinched a No. 3 seed in the ACC tournament and provided a nice bounce-back effort after a home loss to Syracuse eight days earlier.
Notre Dame’s 13th conference victory was spearheaded by sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson, who tossed in 19 points on 6-of-11 shooting from the field and 7-of-7 from the free-throw line. It’s the most points Jackson has scored since tossing in 18 points on Dec. 30 against non-conference foe Hartford.
“Everybody just went for it,” Jackson said. “Guys made big plays. Bonzie (Colson) was like a tight end catching those long passes.”
When Jackson wasn’t making it happen for the Irish, it was the sophomore Colson, who notched a career-high 26 minutes of action as well as a career-high 17 points on 7-of-7 shooting from the field.
“I just keep doing what I try to do every day in practice,” said Colson, who is averaging 16.3 points per game in the last three contests. “I try to bring energy, just bring energy and anything I can do to help us win.”
Notre Dame looked well on its way to an easy victory at halftime, out-scoring Louisville 16-6 over the final seven minutes of the first half to take a 42-31 lead into the locker room.
The Cardinals (23-7, 11-6) scored the first 11 points of the second half to tie the game, and eventually took a 47-46 lead with 11:42 remaining on a Montrezl Harrell basket.
But of the final 37 points scored in the game, Notre Dame tallied 25 of them, due in part to the void left in the Louisville backcourt by the dismissal of third-leading scorer/guard Chris Jones.
“You’re always disappointed when you lose, but Notre Dame was the better basketball team,” said Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, who has now lost two of his last three against the Irish in the Yum! Center.
“Even including Kentucky, out of all the teams we scouted this year, we thought this would be our most difficult game, especially when Chris Jones went out.”
Shockingly, Notre Dame’s two leading scorers – Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton – combined for just two points in the second half. Grant’s layup with 1:16 remaining was his only basket after the intermission.
“For those young guys to play the way they did in this environment gives us confidence that they can do it in the NCAA tournament,” said Grant, who finished with 12 points, seven assists and five of Notre Dame’s 11 turnovers.
Jackson scored nine of his 19 points in the second half while Colson scored 11 of his 17 after the break. Sophomore Steve Vasturia scored five points in each half to finish with 10, but more importantly, he shut down Louisville’s leading scorer – Terry Rozier – by holding him to 4-of-15 shooting.
“I thought Steve Vasturia’s job on Rozier was a key tonight,” Brey said. “(Rozier is) the guy that has to jump-start them out on the perimeter.”
Harrell was the only consistent force for the Cardinals, finishing with 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting with 12 rebounds. Wayne Blackshear and Rozier each scored 11. But for the seventh time in eight ACC home games, Louisville shot under 50 percent. The Cardinals are shooting under 38 percent from the field in eight home conference games.
Notre Dame converted just 2-of-11 three-pointers in the second half. But sparked by Colson, the Irish bench out-scored Louisville’s, 21-2, and it was Jackson who controlled the tempo of the game from the outset.
“Demetrius Jackson is back in gear,” Brey said. “He struggled a little bit against Syracuse. I thought he responded well, and Bonzie Colson just keeps climbing the ladder and getting more confident in being such a key guy for us.”
Colson filled the gap created by another Zach Auguste struggle. The 6-foot-10 junior picked up his second foul less than five minutes into the game and was a non-factor the rest of the half. Brey stuck with Auguste in the second half, and he finally showed some life when paired with Colson.
“We played big a little bit tonight, but everybody really contributed,” Brey said.
The Irish also showed some three-quarter court pressure, which created six steals in the first half.
“We call it ’23 extended,’” Brey said. “It’s just our zone extended. I watched the Duke game and the zone bothered (Louisville) a little bit. We got to it the first media timeout, and then we started to extend it.
“Then all of a sudden, you have to attack our zone with maybe 23 seconds left on the (shot) clock. That’s something that can help us.”
The cat-quick Jackson would love to do more of it.
“Coach always calls us road dogs,” Jackson said. “We didn’t really pressure the ball as a team all year. I think that can help us going forward in March.”
For the fifth time this season, the Irish were faced with the possibility of losing two games in a row. And for the fifth time, back-to-back defeats were avoided. Now the Irish close the regular season Saturday with a home finale against Clemson.
“We were already in the double-bye and (Louisville was) fighting for one,” Brey said. “We talked about it being another win for our NCAA tournament resume.
“I’m glad we’re still hungry. Certainly we’ll be hungry Saturday because we want to send those seniors out the right way.”