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Men’s Basketball

Gans: Close win sets new tone (Feb. 12)

| Wednesday, February 12, 2014

There will be no fifth-straight NCAA tournament appearance this season for Notre Dame. There will be no eighth-straight season of 20-plus wins, barring a deep run in the NIT [National Invitational Tournament] – or CBI [College Basketball Invitational]. And there will be no more Demetrius Jackson until, according to Irish coach Mike Brey, the freshman guard “gets his academic house in order.”

Very little has gone right on or off the court for the Irish this season. Before Jackson’s absence, standout guard Jerian Grant was dismissed from the University for one semester for academic reasons while sophomore forward Cam Biedscheid chose to transfer to Missouri. In the meantime, the Irish have stumbled to a 13-12 record and a mediocre 4-8 conference start in their first season in the ACC. Nine of Notre Dame’s losses have come by eight points or less.

And that — the turmoil, the frustration, the “close, but not quite” nature of this season — is why Tuesday’s 68-64 double overtime win over Clemson means so much. Perhaps not for this year, but in the larger picture of getting Notre Dame’s program back on track this win will be significant.

Opposite of what most prognosticators would have anticipated in November, it was the Tigers who were playing to enhance their NCAA tournament resume while the Irish played for pride on Tuesday night. Entering the game, Clemson was square on the bubble at 15-7 and 6-4 in the ACC, and needed the win more. But in a game full of loose balls and contested shots, it was the Irish who completed a higher number of gritty plays to grind out a victory over the nation’s No. 1-scoring defense.

The Irish coming out strong against programs like Duke, Syracuse and Indiana is easy. To truly compete against a team like Clemson, on the other hand, a good team with one of the ACC’s top players in junior forward K.J. McDaniels, but not a “name” program, is more impressive. The Tigers, on paper, are a team that’s arguably the most dangerous type – a tough squad with little hype. But with little to play for and one of their teammates separated from the program, the Irish still squeaked out a victory.

A year from now, Irish fans won’t care that Notre Dame beat Clemson, 68-64, in double overtime. It will be remembered as a down to the wire, but relatively meaningless win in an otherwise disappointing season. Nothing more, nothing less. And certainly not a game that will remain forever in Irish basketball lore like when Notre Dame bested Louisville 104-101 in five overtimes or when Notre Dame topped No. 1 Syracuse 67-58.

But that’s for the fans. The players?  Maybe, just maybe, it was a sign of things to come. Sophomore Zach Auguste put up his first career double-double (14 points and 12 rebounds) against the Tigers. Freshman guard Steve Vasturia was all over the floor as he racked up 11 points, reaching double figures for the second time this year. Freshman V.J. Beachem, despite only tallying four points, did score what ended up being a critical jumper on the final possession of the first half and made his first career start.

Of course, it’s not hard for underclassmen like Vasturia, Beachem and Auguste to get up for any game. They should be hungry to prove their worth moving forward and build momentum for future years.

But it would be easy for senior guard Eric Atkins to mail it in. Last season, he was on the floor at the end of one of the best games in Big East history. The year before, he was part of the monumental Irish upset over Syracuse. And three years ago, he was starting for the best Irish squad in his lifetime.

Now? He’s leading a team that won’t be dancing. And he will never play on the same team as his roommate and good friend Grant again. But instead of sulking, the captain maintained focus as he scored 16 points with six assists and played all 50 minutes Tuesday.

It would be easy for senior center Garrick Sherman to have sat out the rest of this now-non-essential game after possibly breaking his finger in the first half, instead of playing 42 minutes.  It would be easy for junior forward Pat Connaughton to, if not physically, mentally shift attention to baseball season, instead of scoring 13 points to go with seven rebounds and seven assists.

Instead, these upperclassmen have led by example not just Tuesday night, but throughout this treacherous journey. And though the Irish likely won’t achieve their season goals this year, this team will make an impact on the mindset of the program moving forward even after Sherman and Atkins depart next season and Connaughton two years from now.

The Clemson win was ugly. It will not be memorable. And it will not change the trajectory of this season.

But in a season where little has gone Notre Dame’s way, finally something did. And maybe, though it doesn’t seem like it now, it will be a rallying point for the long haul.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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