A Good Week For The Irish

How’s that for some Sunday night basketball? If you opted to watch the Pro Bowl, or anything else for that matter, you missed a thriller. Oh and by the way, there was another game this week, one that I’ve only now had the opportunity to watch and analyze. Before I get in to the gutsy, 18-point comeback at NC State and what lies ahead for the Irish, let’s not forget that the Irish took it to Virginia Tech.

Beating Buzz Williams

The Wednesday-night game against Virginia Tech feels like it took place a few weeks ago, especially considering Sunday’s events. The Irish came out hot against a familiar foe in Hokies Coach Buzz Williams, and then maintained a good shooting stroke throughout the game, eventually pulling away and winning by 25. I never particularly liked Coach Williams’ antics when he was in the Big East, but for whatever reason, I actually kind of like him in the ACC. I can’t explain it, but his teams will get better.

A 25-point conference win on the road becomes even more impressive when you read the stat sheet and see that VJ Beachem went 0-10 from the floor, and then you look at what Virginia Tech did against Virginia on Sunday, leading by 10 late before collapsing. If starting hot and then burying a scrappy conference opponent on the road signified this Irish team’s toughness, it was simply a precursor to the show that took place Sunday night.

NC State Recap

We move onward to Sunday night’s matchup against the Wolfpack of North Carolina State University. A cold start combined with running in to an absolute buzz saw-on-fire meant the Irish would trail by as many as 18 in the first half, and it felt like about 30. NC State shot 62 percent from the field in that half, compared to ND’s 37 percent, and the only guy to hit from outside for the Irish was Beachem (the team was 1-11 from three in the first half). The road environment was hostile, the PNC Arena was packed, and the Wolfpack were fired up. Despite all of these factors, the Irish managed to put together a run just before the break and trailed by 12 at halftime after a Pat Connaughton tip in at the buzzer.

Mike Brey must have spent some time in the offseason working on his half time speeches. The Irish came out with a different look in their eye for the second half, clawed their way back in to the game, and were tough enough to steal a win in over time. In the second half, the Irish had answers for every punch from the Wolfpack, who as a team cooled off but were still hitting some clutch shots. The threes started to fall for the Irish, including what had to be a 24-foot running pull-up from Grant and back-to-back threes from Demetrius Jackson. Another huge moment was when, in overtime, NC State’s Trevor Lacey hit from downtown, giving the Wolfpack a three-point lead. Notre Dame showed some intestinal fortitude yet again in the ensuing possession, with Pat Connaughton hitting a three-pointer form the corner. From there on, it was all Irish, with Grant blocking a step back three from Lacey as time expired.

VJ Beachem had a nice bounce-back game after going completely cold from the floor Wednesday night, capped off by his game-tying tip-in at the buzzer. He ended up with 11 points and a few boards. Along with Beachem, I thought Jackson again played well. I’ve said it before; Jackson’s defense is my favorite part of his game that doesn’t involve tenaciously attacking the hoop. He’s got such quick hands and quick feet; he even blocked a pull-up jumper in the first half. I was supremely impressed. To get three rebounds and four assists to go with 11 points and two blocks is just what this team needs from its point guard.

Can’t say enough about Connaughton, either. Had the ballgame gone in to a second overtime and the Irish had been without him after he fouled out, I don’t think I like their chances. His 11 points and seven rebounds, along with some clutch shots, demonstrate the balance of this Notre Dame team.

A couple Zach Auguste dunks and a beautiful pass from Jackson to Auguste for a transition finish to take the lead got my man color commentator Brad Daugherty amped up. Rightly so, Daugherty loves him some good post play. Auguste was also big on the boards for the Irish, grabbing 11 boards to go along with his 10 points. Rebounding was supposed to be this teams’ weak spot, but an 18-11 advantage in offensive rebounds shows some new strength in that category. It was offensive rebounding that saved the game in regulation, as well, as Beachem was able to tip in the tie with the ball up for grabs under the Irish basket.

Then there’s Jerian Grant, who continues his strong play after his re-emergence against Miami. Stat lines of 18-7-6 against Tech and 25-4-3 against NC State were enough to garner him ACC Player of the Week honors. While a large amount of Notre Dame’s success stems from Grant, I think recently the frequency with which his teammates have stepped up and produced has benefited his game. Naturally, a balanced team means that defenses cannot key on one guy, and opportunities have opened back up for Grant – the type of guy that can capitalize on those opportunities and put daggers in his opponents.

And, lastly, Brad Daugherty! I thoroughly enjoyed his call. ESPN, if you’re listening, please feature Brad Daugherty as the color commentator in more games. Not only was he enthusiastic and on-point all game, but he was also one of the all-time greats for my hometown favorites, the Cleveland Cavaliers. I mean, the guy chose his jersey number (43) as a tribute to Richard Petty, and he owned a NASCAR truck racing team of some sort at some point in time. What’s not to love?

Where the Irish Stand, Nationally and in the ACC

When the dust settled Sunday, not much had really changed. Virginia was able to pull it out against Virginia Tech, maintaining their league-leading, perfect record and remaining a game ahead of the Irish in the ACC standings. Teams in the AP Top 10 won a lot of games last week, and as a result, the AP Top Ten poll stayed fairly static, with the Irish checking in at number eight again. Villanova slipped after a loss to Georgetown, allowing Duke to jump up to number four, setting up for a huge top-ten matchup this Wednesday at Purcell Pavilion. The Irish will be tasked with stopping Jahlil Okafor on defense, but with the game being in South Bend I like the Irish putting up enough points to hang with the Blue Devils. After Duke, the Irish get the Pitt Panthers on Saturday.