Some people described Mike Brey's squad as the hottest team coming in to this NCAA tournament. Coming off stirring wins over Duke and North Carolina to capture the ACC championship, Notre Dame opened play in what Brey called "The Pittsburgh Tournament" on Thursday shortly after noon. Of course, for all the media love being shown Brey and his team, it has been delivered with the caveat of the Irish underperforming in previous tournament appearances.
A match-up with the Northeastern Huskies, the CAA Champions, presented the Irish with what many considered a mirror image of itself. The Huskies play efficient offense, shoot well, and were coming off earning an automatic bid by winning their conference tournament. To the detriment of the cardiac health of Irish fans, Notre Dame at times seemed to be facing both Northeastern and their own tournament past at times on Thursday. This version of the Fighting Irish did what they've done this year. They shook off the opposition's punch, and closed out their 6th straight victory. In a sleepy gym, in the early time-slot, Mike Brey's guys were far from dominant, but ask the other two three-seeds that played Thursday whether they'd take a close shave that results in them advancing.
Zach Auguste's performance is the headline for the Irish. Despite early foul trouble, the junior big man led the Irish with 25 points in 27 minutes. Auguste was an efficient 10-14 from the floor and 5-7 from the line, with none more important than the game clinching FT's he put in with 2 seconds remaining in the contest. Auguste also chipped in 5 of ND's 17 rebounds and two assists.
On the other side, Auguste was matched up with Northeastern's Scott Eatherton paced the Huskies with 18 points and 8 rebounds of his own. Notre Dame really struggled to contain the 6'8" senior inside, particularly when Auguste was sent to the bench with early fouls.
Notre Dame's Jerian Grant contributed 17 points, 5 assists, and 3 boards in all 40 minutes. Grant struggled the first half of the first half with early turnovers and poor shooting, but late in the first half, he carried the Irish and looked the most dominant player on the floor. His defense was critical in closing out the victory.
The maturation of Demetrius Jackson continues. The sophomore guard provided relentless pressure on the defensive end and turned in another solid performance with 9 points, 8 assists, and two steals. DJ and Pat Connaughton hit the only two Irish three point field goals in the game -- one in each half. Notre Dame attempted only six threes the entire game. Steve Vasturia just makes plays. Vasturia paced Notre Dame with four steals and another rock-solid floor game.
The Irish used a somewhat new, and contrarian to the #narrative look to win this game. Once again, Notre Dame held their opponent below their KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency number. Northeastern's adjusted OE on the year was 105.9, but the Irish held the Huskies to 104.8. As expected, the Irish generated 16 Northeastern turnovers and managed to score 22 of their 69 points in transition. This isn't a team reliant on bombing 3's to score.
Northeastern used timely three point shooting and a big advantage on the offensive boards to keep themselves competitive throughout the game. Every time ND looked poised to pull away after a few stops, the Irish would miss a shot or two and the Huskies hit a big shot or found a put-back to keep it close. Notre Dame came out of the under-4 media stoppage with an 8 point lead, but Northeastern trimmed that quickly to 4 after a nice bucket by Quincy Ford followed by Grant missing a long 3 in an ISO set and an Eatherton basket. Another Grant miss was followed by a huge steal and dunk by the All-American and Wooden Award Finalist to keep ND up 4. The Irish managed to work some clock, but Northeastern wisely fouled DJ, who missed the front end while still blinking off an earlier poke in the eye. Eatherton's put-back cut the lead to 2 and the Notre Dame body language started to seize up. With his team up 2 late, Connaughton tried to go deep to DJ who wasn't able to spot and catch the long pass.
Twitter pitchforks were being sharpened to skewer Brey and the Irish for another March disappointment. Rather than letting the weight of past failures anchor them, Notre Dame did what it needed to do - they dug in and defended. Grant, Jackson and Auguste combined to turn over Northeastern and Auguste calmly knocked down both his 1-and-1 FT's to seal the victory.
Let's make sure that sinks in with you. The Irish defended to win a game in the tournament and Zach Auguste defended and sunk clutch FT's to secure it. The maturation of Auguste is yet another great story line for a team that has an abundance of them. If you're the type of fan that's upset the Irish didn't put up a double-digit victory Thursday afternoon. Please explain that to me in the comment section below. I'm sure fans of the Cyclones and Bears would be happy to discuss the relative value of surviving and advancing.
Next up are the Butler Bulldogs on Saturday. Our man Alstein will be hooking you up with a full preview shortly. Notre Dame's 30 win season continues. Go Irish.