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Men’s Basketball: Rise and shine

Andrew Gastelum | Wednesday, November 16, 2011

With sophomore point guard Eric Atkins and fifth-year forward Tim Abromaitis out, Notre Dame got an unexpected boost from freshman guard Pat Connaughton’s 24 points en route to a 74-41 victory over Sam Houston State in the Progressive CBE Classic regional round Wednesday night.

Atkins, Notre Dame’s leading scorer, didn’t even make the Irish bench because he was sick with the flu, while junior guard Joey Brooks left the game near the end of the first half with flu-like symptoms. With the four-game suspension of Abromaitis due to eligibility issues, this left the Irish with just eight players.

“I was nervous coming into the game [with two starters out],” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “I had Big East butterflies. I don’t know my team yet. It is kind of fun and exciting to try and figure it out. I told them the first day, ‘We are going to need all of you to play and get a part of it.’ As you get further into the season, that can all change at some point but for right now, I want all of those guys’ heads good because you don’t know where things are going to go. And they have been good so far.”

Connaughton rose to the occasion, scoring 17 of his 24 points on five 3-pointers in the first half. With 3:54 remaining in the first, the freshman brought the crowd to its feet when his back-to-back 3-pointers led to his eighth-straight point for the Irish.

“To be honest [attacking the basket] is usually what my game is,” Connaughton said. “Coach Brey always tells me when I am open to shoot it and not worry about it. That’s what I did tonight and that is just how it worked out. [The first 3-pointer] is a confidence builder. When you hit the first one and then hit the second one, it [becomes], ‘Okay we are just playing basketball.’”

Meanwhile the Bearkats got into early foul trouble when junior forward and leading-scorer Steven Werner committed three fouls within the first two minutes of the game. Coming into the contest, Werner was averaging 20 points and 16 rebounds per game. Thanks to the three early fouls though, the junior was replaced by freshman center Michael Holyfield, who picked up four fouls of his own in the first half.

After Sam Houston State cut the Notre Dame lead to one with eight-and-a-half minutes left in the first half, the Irish went on a 23-2 run to end the half, including an eight-minute stretch in which they did not allow a single point.

“I hope [the team is taking on a defensive role],” Brey said. “We have certainly talked about that. Through today, [the question is] whether we can be mature to rely on our defense when the offensive stuff isn’t going great. I would like us to really embrace that.”

From the tip-off, the Irish cracked down defensively, holding the Bearkats to 34 percent shooting while forcing 18 turnovers. The Irish took advantage of Sam Houston State’s sloppy play with 25 points off turnovers.

Sophomore guard Jerian Grant provided a second half spark for the Irish, scoring 11 of his 17 points in the final period on six-for-six shooting. Meanwhile, the Irish bench added 33 points for the game, led by Connaughton.

“Coming in, I didn’t expect to do this my second or third game. Then again, playing with my teammates, they really believed that I could do it,” Connaughton said. “Nothing really [surprises me] because the guys I practice against every day are some of the best players in the country. And playing [a game] is just another day of work.”

The freshman showed off his athleticism in his breakout performance, finishing a two-on-two fast break with a slam-dunk after Grant slipped him a behind-the-back pass with 3:38 left in the game. One minute later, Grant electrified the crowd with a thunderous slam-dunk after a full-court pass from junior forward Mike Broghammer.

Senior forward Marcus James led the way for Sam Houston State with 16 points and eight rebounds, but it wasn’t enough for the struggling Bearkats as the Irish extended their home winning streak to 22 games.

The Irish will take on Delaware State this Friday before heading to Kansas City on Monday for the CBE Classic semifinal game against Missouri.

 

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agestel1@nd.edu