NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Notre Dame found its mojo on the right day, Senior Day, and at the right time of the year with a trip to the ACC tournament in Washington, D.C. right around the corner.
All is right again in Notre Dame basketball heading into post-season play as the Irish try to defend their ACC tournament crown.
“It was important to go to the ACC (tournament) with some momentum,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, whose squad stopped a two-game losing streak, and an ugly two-game losing streak at that.
“It was important to find some kind of offensive rhythm again. If we would have lost 92-91, I would not have been (upset) because I would have thought, ‘Okay, we’re scoring the thing; we’ll figure the other stuff out.’”
Coming off games of 56 points against Florida State and 50 against Miami, Brey knew his offense needed a boost. He was inspired by an idea: practice with a 20-second shot clock.
The improvisation worked as the Irish scored their most points since Feb. 8 against Clemson when they also tallied 89. It also put added meaning on tonight’s North Carolina at Duke game with a Tar Heels victory sending the Irish to the ACC tournament as the No. 4 seed with a double-bye.
“Eighty-nine points sure looks good on that scoreboard,” Brey said. “Tempo was key. We played faster in practice, and I thought Demetrius and Matty (Farrell) did a good job of pushing the pace. It got us in attack mode.”
Matt Ryan scored 17 first-half points, Rex Pflueger buttoned up Cat Barber, Zach Auguste celebrated Senior Day with another outstanding performance, and the seldom-used Farrell sparked the Irish as Demetrius Jackson – who scored all 14 of his points in the second half – struggled in the first.
“Just flying around and shooting shots,” said Jackson of the fast-paced practice approach. “Although we wanted to play fast, we had to understand the tempo, understand the game when it was time to slow down.”
The Irish found the right pace and, surprisingly, they did it with 10 players in the first half. Brey, aware that the pace might impact his regulars, substituted early and often.
The first beneficiary was Ryan, who connected on 4-of-5 three-pointers and scored all 17 of his points in 11 minutes of first-half action.
“That’s my role,” Ryan said. “I just want to come in and hit some shots, grab some rebounds and do whatever I can to help the team.”
With Barber scoring 16 points within the first 15 minutes of the game, the Irish needed a defensive spark. Pflueger got the call and locked down on Barber, holding him to one basket over the final 5:48 of the first half and none during Pflueger’s 13 second-half minutes.
Pflueger provided a bonus with a pair of three-pointers within a 40-second span in the second half in the midst of an 18-4 run that turned a one-point lead into a 15-point cushion.
“I had a good feeling when I was guarding (Barber),” Pflueger said. “He was cool, calm and collected because he knows how to score. I know me guarding him is not going to phase him.”
But it did, and despite Barber’s game-high 29 points, he converted just 1-of-5 from three-point range and could not score when the Irish made the run that provided the winning margin.
“So many times on Senior Day, freshmen win the game, and how about our freshmen today,” said Brey, whose bench of mainly freshmen and sophomores out-scored N.C. State’s, 30-16.
There was no holding down one Irish senior – Auguste – whose 24 points and 11 rebounds continued his strong roll, even when the Irish were in the midst of losing three of four.
Auguste made 8-of-11 from the field and 8-of-11 from the line against the Wolfpack. The 24 points tied a season-high.
“You’ve got to make the best of it,” said Auguste of his surging consistency. “I’m trying to win, trying to have a great season, and this is my last chance in college.”
Brey, who has been singing Auguste’s praises the last two weeks, took it to another level following the victory over N.C. State.
“He’s a flat-out machine right now,” said Brey of Auguste. “I am so impressed and so proud of the man, the leader and the player he’s become. We’re going to ride him hard.
“There’s not a big man in the country playing better than Zach Auguste.”
Now it’s on to the ACC tournament where a victory by Duke tonight slots the Irish as the No. 5 seed Wednesday against the winner of the Nos. 8-9 seeds. A North Carolina win puts the Irish in the No. 4 slot Thursday, likely against the No. 5 seed.