O'Malley's Key Three

Notre Dame closed its regular season with 26 wins and a 14-4 mark in ACC play. Now the real work begins.

A pick-and-roll conversion for a layup. A high-post bounce pass to a cutting Pat Connaughton for two points. A post-entry steal on the other end. A backdoor cut and feed from Steve Vasturia for another easy bucket.

Zach Auguste's first 2:18 of Saturday's 81-67 win over Clemson at the Purcell Pavilion encapsulated the junior forward at his best: moving without the ball, screening for curling teammates, utilizing his quick hands after earning defensive position -- and finding teammates in Notre Dame's perpetually moving offense.

"I love sharing the basketball and seeing people succeed," Auguste said of his three assists on back cuts. "It's fun for me to hit them and get them easy buckets. I love getting hyped from seeing them do good things."
Auguste hadn't had much reason to be hyped over the last month, failing to score at Duke and notching only two points at both Clemson and Louisville. The friendly confines of the Purcell Pavilion had been somewhat more welcoming, but Saturday afternoon ranks among the junior's most aggressive outing of the conference season.

"Once I saw him come out with his own post move I knew he was ready to play," said Irish standout guard Jerian Grant of Auguste. "Previous games, when he got in the post, I felt like he was looking to pass, but when he is aggressive like he was today, it gives us another weapon which makes us that much harder to stop."

Auguste's 19 points, three assists, two steals, and two blocks could not have occurred at a more opportune time. Notre Dame's big man regained his confidence and rhythm just prior to the end-season stretch that matters most.

"Individually I had a couple of slip-ups but we were winning so it didn't matter," Auguste said of his uneven month. "I had to get back in the gym a little bit and my brothers held me accountable. They had my back. They told me to be me, and that's what we did.

"I'm ready to continue my play and take it to the next level, seeing where it can go leading into these two tournaments."

He's not alone in that regard.

Irish head coach Mike Brey offered from the outset of the 2014-15 campaign that sophomore Steve Vasturia was his best defensive player. The final 30 minutes of Saturday's contest offered an illustration to that end.

"Steve to the rescue, again" said Brey.

Rescue was necessary because Clemson power forward Jaron Blossomgame was murdering Notre Dame's defense. Blossomgame scored Clemson's first seven points and 13 of the team's first 17 through the game's opening 10:26, hitting each of his six field goal attempts.

"He was crushing us. The guy was rolling," said Brey of a matchup problem that first included Pat Connaughton, then a 2-3 zone in an attempt to slow Blossomgame. "In hindsight we should have started Steve on him, we debated that…he's just so reliable defensively, so solid."

Over the game's final 30 minutes, guarded largely by Vasturia, Blossomgame managed only nine points including just five in the second stanza on three field goal attempts.

"Just try to frustrate him a little bit and not let him catch the ball," said Vasturia of his plan of attack after inheriting the red-hot Tigers scorer. "We tried to deny him a little bit and try to push him a little farther away from the basket. Overall as a team, I think we did a pretty good job…trying to push him off the block with guys on the backside in help position. We did a good job of keeping him out of the lane."

Vasturia fronted him in the post, bumped him on cuts, stayed within arm's length as a help side defender, and stayed in front of the bigger, stronger Blossomgame for the entire second half.

Asked why he didn't begin the game with his best defender on Clemson's lone offensive weapon, Brey (half)-jokingly added, "I think I listen to my darn assistants too much. Sometimes I do that. (Blossomgame) was a little bigger, a four-man, and posting a lot. He got rolling, he felt really good."

The use of "team" and "we" by Vasturia is notable. The ultimate complimentary player, Vasturia chipped in with 12 points on six field goal attempts (4-6, 2-2 from beyond the arc, 2-2 FT).

"Steve takes his matchups personally, when he gets out there he doesn't like people scoring on him," said Grant. "He won't' say much, but he'll lock you up."

To the rescue, whenever called upon.

It's not a slump. Not yet.

A slump was what former Notre Dame sharpshooter Tim Abromaitis encountered to conclude the 2011 season, a promising campaign for the Irish that ended in a semi-finals loss in the Big East Tournament and a stunning opening round defeat at the hands of *Old Dominion.

(*In the worst game ever played, but hey, a first-round loss is a first-round loss…)

The Big East's Most Improved Player award winner that season, Abromaitis inexplicably connected on just 3 of his final 31 three-point shots over Notre Dame's final seven games en route to a one-and-done in the NCAA's.

(3 of 31?)

Abromaitis was one of the league's best prior to his end-season swoon, shooting better than 48 percent from beyond the arc, and such was the case for Notre Dame senior captain Pat Connaughton entering the season's final week this winter.

Connaughton drilled 47 percent of his previous 68 three-point field goal attempts over a 12-game league span, but in the last five, he's just 10 of 31 -- and a troubling 2 of 11 in the last two outings. The sample size is relevant because it comes on the heels of a stomach virus that took 15 pounds from Connaughton's (under) six-foot-four, 214-pound frame.

"I'm almost back to full weight. I have to get a little back but for the most part I'm alright," said Connaughton.

Notre Dame can't win big without its captain returning to form.

"It's a matter of taking care of your body," he said of his continued rest and recovery plan leading up to tournament season. "I've learned how to do it over the last four years. Hopefully I'll hit some unchartered territory when we play more games and hopefully I'll (get back to) knocking down a few more shots."

Connaughton's big-game early-season totals dwarf his post-illness efforts: 16 points and 9 boards at North Carolina in January; 21 points and 8 rebounds against the nations' second-best defensive team, Virginia; 13 and 12 in a home win over Duke to conclude the month.

Since, he's hit for double digits in points in just four of nine games; double figures in rebounds in 1 of 9. Prior to that stretch, Connaughton scored in double figures in 11 straight and posted an absurd eight games over the course of the season with at least 10 boards.

He looks to close his decorated career on a high note.

"It has just been a great experience," he said of his time under the Dome. "It's obviously something you only have one time and to share it with Jerian is something you couldn't write a better script for. I could have made a few more shots (vs. Clemson) but it is not something I am worried about. The most important thing we played well as a collective group heading into March."

Two years removed from a lights-out, three-game shooting exhibition in the Big East Tournament -- an absurd 15 of 24 three-point shooting performance against Rutgers, Marquette, and national champion Louisville -- Connaughton is due for an encore.

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