NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Notre Dame had a surprise starter against Wake Forest, and it wasn’t Demetrius Jackson, who missed Thursday’s game at Syracuse with a hamstring injury.
Jackson was, indeed, in the starting lineup Sunday in Notre Dame’s 85-62 victory over the Demon Deacons, which raised the Irish record to 15-6, including 6-3 in ACC play at the halfway point of the conference schedule.
But it was senior Austin “A.J.” Burgett who came out for the opening introductions for the first time since the last regular-season game of 2013-14 to provide the Irish with 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting from three-point range and five rebounds in 25 minutes of action.
Burgett’s sharp performance – along with Zach Auguste’s 21 points and 12 rebounds – helped lead the Irish to their fifth victory in the last six games.
“I was thinking, ‘Let’s start old,’” said Irish head coach Mike Brey.
“When I thought about how young we looked at Syracuse with our two freshmen in there, what was coming up, and how (Burgett) had been practicing, I’m thinking to myself, ‘We should start him.’”
Brey likely would have stayed with the status quo all things being equal. Jackson was coming back from a hamstring pull that offered no guarantees in terms of playing time after skipping the Syracuse game.
Freshman Rex Pflueger, who started against the Orange, was nursing a sprained right ankle while fellow rookie Matt Ryan had missed his first seven three-point attempts in the Carrier Dome and had been troubled by a hip flexor.
Burgett, whom Brey said had been practicing well the last month, was the “logical” choice to make his first start in 59 games.
“Coach called and said, ‘Rex has a banged up ankle and Bonzie (Colson) is playing his best off the bench,’” said Burgett of Brey’s late-week decision. “He said, ‘I think we should start you tomorrow.’
“At first, I was like, ‘Huh?’ But I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it,’ and I just came in and played.’”
Burgett did more than just play. He grabbed his first rebound 31 seconds into the game and his second at the 18:57 mark. Shortly thereafter, Burgett hit the first of four three-pointers on six attempts, finishing with 14 points and five rebounds in 25 minutes.
It was Burgett’s longest stint since a 26-minute effort against Virginia Tech midway through the 2013-14 season. The 14 points eclipsed his career high of 11.
Burgett not only played well, but he served as an inspiration to fellow senior Zach Auguste, who tallied 21 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in 28 minutes of action, including 7-of-7 from the free-throw line after missing 4-of-6 Thursday night in Syracuse.
“I just tried to keep (Burgett’s) head at a high level,” said Auguste, who rooms with Burgett. “He got a shot and he did what he had to do.”
Jackson played his typical role – with one exception -- after missing a game for the first time since his freshman season. He converted just 1-of-6 from three-point range, but scored 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting from two-point range with seven rebounds, eight assists, and six steals.
The uncharacteristic part, which Jackson attributed to a lack of practice while nursing the hamstring, was his five turnovers. He came into the game with just 36 turnovers in 19 games, or less than two per game.
“I felt good and I’ll continue to do the things I was doing while I was rehabbing it,” Jackson said. “I wasn’t really thinking about it, and when you’re not focusing on something, it’s almost like it’s non-existent.
“I feel (the hamstring) now a little bit, but I feel good and I just want to continue taking care of my body so I can be back and even better than before.”
Notre Dame took advantage of one of the most inefficient defenses in the country. Wake Forest (10-11, 1-8) – last in the ACC in field-goal percentage defense – aided Burgett in his hot-shooting performance as the Irish converted 57.1 percent of their first-half shots (16-of-28) from the field.
The Irish made 9-of-26 three-point attempts with all of Burgett’s shots clean looks. Meanwhile, the Irish took advantage of Wake Forest’s poor season-long shooting from three-point range, limiting the Demon Deacons to just 4-of-16 from distance.
The Irish remained solid at the free-throw line, converting 14-of-18, led by Auguste’s perfect slate. The Irish are shooting right around the 80 percent mark from the line in the last six games.
Auguste led five Irish players in double-figure scoring, followed by V.J. Beachem (15), Burgett (14), Jackson (14) and Steve Vasturia (10).
Freshman guard Bryant Crawford led all Wake Forest scorers with 20 points, but 17 came in the first half when the Irish shot to a 46-29 lead. Devin Thomas tossed in 19 points with eight rebounds.
All in all, it was a nice bounce-back performance after a skittish effort without Jackson three days earlier in Syracuse. It makes for Wednesday’s game at No. 15 Miami all the more critical.
With five of the next seven games on the road – and the two homes games against No. 2 North Carolina and No. 16 Louisville – the path ahead gets precarious.
“We’re under par on the first nine holes at 6-3,” Brey said. “The back nine of this ACC course is much harder.
“(Miami) will be one heckuva test.”