PITTSBURGH – It was an early-December practice in 2013. The first conference game of the ACC era at Notre Dame was still weeks away. So, too, was Jerian Grant’s departure from the team.
Something happened, a mishandled pass, a missed shot around the bucket or a pointed remark directed Zach Auguste’s way. What it was exactly has been lost in time.
Something set the 6-foot-10 sophomore off. So he punched the stanchion of the basket in Purcell Pavilion, and then he sat out the next two games with a broken bone in his hand.
Fast-forward 15 months. Notre Dame – playing for the ACC championship in Greensboro – is down by nine points with about 10 minutes remaining against North Carolina.
The partisan Tar Heels crowd is rockin’ and Notre Dame, a surprise No. 3 seed following a bounce-back regular season, is on the verge of accepting the runner-up trophy and heading to the NCAA tournament with high hopes and a second-place ribbon.
But the Irish aren’t done yet, due largely to Auguste. Amidst a 24-2 run that would sweep the emotion away from North Carolina’s grasp and deposit the ACC championship trophy into Notre Dame’s hand, Auguste took off against one of the longest teams in the country.
When the dust had settled, Auguste had 16 points, 8-of-9 free throws and 13 rebounds -- the latter of which was a career-high -- and Notre Dame had its championship crown.
“There was no way we would get to this point without him being a key guy,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, a week after the ACC tournament, and about 24 hours after Auguste’s 25-point performance propelled No. 3 Midwest Regional seed Notre Dame to a 69-65 victory over No. 14 seed Northeastern.
“He was a guy who could really swing emotionally, even in a practice. He’s matured.”
A year ago, perhaps even a month ago, Auguste likely would not have responded quite so impressively. After a 26-point game to open ACC play in December against Florida State, Auguste frequently struggled, perhaps tied into an “academic issue” that prompted him to remain on campus for Notre Dame’s early-January trip to Georgia Tech.
Wrapped around his absence in Atlanta was a pair of four-point games, including a nine-minute stint against Miami when the match-up dictated a smaller lineup.
“Just a lack of focus,” said Auguste of his inconsistent performances from the past. “I’ve got to bring it every day. That’s something I’ve been working on.”
Now, when the spotlight goes on, Auguste gravitates to the glow.
“When the lights shine the brightest, we have goals we’re trying to reach, not just individually, but collectively, and we want to push each other that much harder,” Auguste said.
Over the last five games – the regular-season finale against Clemson, the three ACC tournament games against Miami, Duke and North Carolina, and the first game of the NCAA tournament against Northeastern – Auguste has come alive.
He’s averaging 15.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game at the most crucial juncture of the season, due in large part to his ability to allow poor performances – like the two-point, three-rebound output at Louisville in the last road game of the year -- to roll off his back.
Brey credits senior captain Pat Connaughton and fifth-year senior Jerian Grant with the co-assist.
“At the end of the day, it was a matter of him knowing we needed him,” said Connaughton, who has counseled Auguste throughout the season. “We needed him from the jump, and he knew that coming into this year
“I also made him understand that it’s not going to be an easy road and not every game is going to be your best game. I struggled with the same thing. If you can coordinate that into not letting it bother you as long as people picked you up and you won, then you’re going to be a lot happier with yourself. It’s going to be a lot easier for you to bounce back.”
This time, it appears as if it might stick, not that Auguste will be satisfied with every performance. He’s still prone to foul trouble, which limited him to nine minutes in the first half of the Northeastern game. He’s second on the team in turnovers despite playing less than 24 minutes per game. Consistency will remain the goal beyond a five-game stretch of success.
But when the Irish have needed a stronger inside presence against size, which Bonzie Colson can’t always provide effectively, Auguste has answered the call, and now the Irish are 40 minutes away from their first Sweet 16 appearance in 12 years.
“I got a chance to learn a lot from Jack Cooley and Garrick Sherman,” said Auguste of his two predecessors in the post. “I was blessed to have them in front of me. I got to practice against them and got a chance to go up against aggressive players. I took that and used that to my benefit.”
In turn, Brey’s confidence in Auguste has grown, so much so that he put him back in the game late in the first half against Northeastern with two fouls, and then kept him on the court 16 seconds into the second half when he picked up his third.
“I trust Zach more now than I did earlier in the year,” Brey said. “If this were back in January, I wouldn’t have trusted him. He’s matured so much. He understands how to play with foul trouble. He’s controlled his emotions better, and starting in Greensboro, he’s on a heckuva roll for us.
“Most young college kids need to mature and learn to control their emotions better. That was Zach back in his younger days.”
Ah, the carefree days of our youth. Zach Auguste is growing up, and it’s showing with Notre Dame’s post-season fate on the line.