The Notre Dame Fighting Irish (4-0) entered Saturday having hardly broken a sweat thus far this season, earning its first three wins against clearly overmatched opponents by at least 37 points. That changed today as they took on the Massachusetts Minutemen (3-1) in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament in Connecticut, where the Irish dispatched UMass, 81-68.
Notre Dame got off to a slow start with plenty of sloppiness on both ends of the court, including five turnovers in the first ten minutes. They trailed by as many as ten points around the eight minute mark in the first half before turning up the heat. The Irish turnaround was sparked by some great defense that transitioned into red hot offense for most of the remainder of the game.
The Irish climbed out of their deficit relatively quickly, regaining the lead with three minutes left in the first half after back-to-back threes from Demetrius Jackson and Jerian Grant, both impressively off the dribble. They took a three-point lead into halftime.
It was almost all Irish in the second half as they pushed their lead to as many as 17 and never led by fewer than 7 after an initial burst that included a sequence of a Pat Connaughton three, Grant steal, and Jackson three that pushed the lead to nine.
On a day that Notre Dame shot nearly 59% from the field and 47% from three, the defense may have been the story of the game and spark that turned things around. The Irish forced 18 turnovers including 13 steals and really turned up the pressure on ball handlers that dared cross the half court line and refused to give up too many easy buckets inside. All told, they held UMass to just under 43% shooting and could have turned this one into a laugher if not for a -12 free throw disparity.
Jerian Grant led the way for Notre Dame, scoring 24 points on 10 of 13 shooting(!) while picking up 8 assists and just generally looking as calm and awesome as can be. Connaughton hit big shot after big shot and finished with 18 points despite a 7 turnover day.
Zach Auguste, the star of the show after three games, struggled a bit today to get going but still finished with an 11 point-10 rebound double-double and led an Irish rebounding effort that saw them grab three more rebounds than the Minutemen. He also had highlight reel dunks on back-to-back possessions that really show the difference in athleticism between this year and last year for Notre Dame.
Demetrius Jackson added 16 points of his on on 5 of 6 shooting, including his only two attempts from behind the arc, and forced 5 steals. The sophomore remains very impressive after a lackluster debut season, as head coach Mike Brey has seemingly gotten his point guard more confident and in a role that suits him perfectly.
Unsurprisingly, Derrick Gordon and Cady Lalanne led the way for UMass, scoring 18 and 16 points respectively, but each were forced into 4 costly turnovers. Donte Clark also added 10 points off the bench, outscoring a disappointing Irish bench effort all by himself.
The win was the most impressive thus far for an Irish squad that looks like a 180 from last year's disappointing bunch. The aggressiveness on the defensive end, the calm when things aren't going their way, the scrappiness on the boards, the efficiency especially from deep. If you made a checklist before the season for the things Notre Dame needs to do to get back to the NCAA Tournament this season, the Irish have checked all those boxes and then some early on.
Notre Dame faces another tough opponent tomorrow, as the defending Big East champion Providence Friars stand between the Irish and a picture perfect 5-0 start. The game tips off at 2:30 EST on ESPN2 and will be a de facto Hall of Fame Tipoff championship if the Friars can knock off Florida State this afternoon.
Tune in. This team just looks...different this season. Notre Dame should, at the very least, be fun to watch the next five months.