Irish rally, eye ACC title challenge

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – With Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton watching from the front row, Notre Dame rallied from an 11-point deficit in the second half to top Louisville.

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Mike Brey knew what the story might be Saturday night.

With Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton front row to watch Notre Dame face Louisville in the sold out Purcell Pavilion, the narrative could have been how the Irish are coping without their NBA backcourt. And in a way, it was. It’s just that Notre Dame is managing that task better than even Brey predicted.

Despite falling down 11 points in the second half, Notre Dame rallied for a 71-66 win over No. 13 Louisville as the program’s current backcourt erupted. Demetrius Jackson matched his career high with 27 points while Steve Vasturia missed his by a layup, finishing with 20.

Now Notre Dame (18-7, 9-4) can realistically hunt something Grant and Connaughton never captured, a regular season title in the ACC. The Irish trail North Carolina by two games in the loss column but no program has more league wins than Notre Dame.

“The guys that returned remember how we could go for the jugular,” Brey said. “We have been really cruel competitors this last week and I couldn’t be prouder. When we sense it, we go for it.”

On a three-game win streak (North Carolina, at Clemson, Louisville), Notre Dame gets a week off before three straight on the road at Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Florida State. The Irish close the regular season with home games against Miami and N.C. State. Winning them all might not be enough to take the ACC, but the Irish look up for it, even if they didn’t at halftime on Saturday.
 
Louisville (19-6, 8-4) led 43-36 at intermission, closing the half on an alley oop dunk off a Jackson turnover. The Cardinals had shot 16-of-33 from the field, 48.5 percent, while the Irish were little more than Jackson’s long-range game.

The junior had 20 points at the break and finished 6-of-12 from three-point range. In the previous five games since returning from a hamstring pull, Jackson had shot just 3-of-21 from distance.

“I actually air balled a couple in shoot around today,” Jackson said. “I didn’t know how it was gonna go.”

In the second half Notre Dame discovered its defensive rhythm and Louisville wilted, finishing with just 23 points and shooting 28 percent. The Cardinals hit just two field goals in the final nine minutes.

Those stops helped the Irish spring a 14-3 run during the game’s closing stages.

“Tonight we knew we could win it on defense,” Jackson said. “Once we got a lead it was about defending from there. That’s what it takes to win these games most of the time.

“All of the time, really.”

Vasturia poured in 15 points in the second half to pair with Notre Dame’s defensive upgrade, driving at Louisville’s taller, longer front line. Somehow, the Irish dominated the rebounding battle 41-29 as Zach Auguste (12) and Bonzie Colson (10) did the heavy lifting.

Auguste added 11 points for his 14th double-double this year.

Colson finished with eight points. Notre Dame’s bench didn’t score.

“We’re really resilient,” Vasturia said. “I think the one thing is the confidence in the leaders on the this team.”

That was so good against Louisville that how Jackson and Vasturia drove Notre Dame turned the returns of Grant, Connaughton, David Rivers, Chris Thomas and Eric Atkins into a sidebar. That’s life for Brey with five games left in the regular season.

Now a coach who once talked about just making the play-in game for the NCAA tournament is discussing something much bigger and better.

“The regular season championship is something for us to talk about tomorrow,” Brey said.


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