Mazurek: Second half shows Irish are more than just Jackson
Marek Mazurek | Monday, February 15, 2016
When Notre Dame students stormed the court last Saturday after the team’s win against then-No. 2 North Carolina, many assumed it was a one-time deal. A brief moment of elation in what would be viewed as an alright season.
After a road victory over Clemson and Saturday’s take-down of No. 13 Louisville, however, it has become blindingly apparent that this year’s Irish (18-7, 9-4 ACC) are not going anywhere.
Notre Dame is now fourth place in the ACC which means it’s in double-bye territory for the conference tournament. The Irish were already a lock for the NCAA tournament, but they’ve now shown they will be a tough team to knock out.
And the most important word in that last sentence is “team.” As well as last year’s squad performed, it was really the Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton show. Grant was the one who had the ball in the final minutes of every game last year and the team lived on his and Connaughton’s leadership.
Many people thought junior guard Demetrius Jackson would be this year’s Grant. Jackson is Notre Dame’s best player and the only game he missed, against Syracuse, the Irish lost by 15.
It is fitting then that it was during a game with Grant and Connaughton looking on from the sidelines that this year’s team learned they need more than just Jackson.
In the first half against Louisville, Jackson had 20 points and broke his career-high in 3-pointers made by going 5-for-8 from behind the arc. Despite Jackson’s performance, the Irish trailed by seven going into the locker room.
Jackson only scored seven points in the second half, yet Notre Dame stormed back to beat one of the best defensive teams in the conference. In fact, the game’s most crucial stretch saw very little of Jackson. The Irish trailed by ten when junior guard Steve Vasturia sunk a 3-pointer and junior forward V.J. Beachem put in a layup to cut the Cardinals’ lead to five and a Jackson layup capped a quick 7-0 burst to pull Notre Dame back into the game.
Following the teams trading a couple baskets, Jackson then hit his career-high sixth 3-point shot to trim the deficit with 8:26 remaining in the game. A Vasturia layup cut the Louisville lead to one and then Beachem came up with a block on the defensive end and senior forward Zach Auguste threw down a dunk to give the Irish their first lead of the second half.
As the Irish continued to grind out the final minutes, key rebounds by Beachem and sophomore forward Bonzie Colson sealed the victory for the Irish.
What the two halves of the Louisville game show is that if the Irish plan to compete for an ACC title, they need every one of their starters to perform at a high level.
Yes, it all starts with Jackson. He needs to be able to drive to the basket and create opportunities for everyone else; but everyone else has to step up. Auguste needs to take advantage of the pick-and-rolls Jackson creates, Vasturia has to ball-handle and create his own shots, Colson has to get the loose balls and rebounds and Beachem needs to make 3-point baskets.
Saturday night, the starters stepped up. Vasturia had 15 second-half points to help Jackson out. Colson chipped in eight points with 10 rebounds. Beachem hit a key 3-point shot in the final minutes, and Auguste closed the game out with two final free-throws.
Against North Carolina, it was the same story. Jackson led the way with 19 points, but all five starters had double digits.
Even off of the court, Irish head coach Mike Brey spoke to the shared leadership of this year’s team.
“One of the things I wasn’t sure about, but I’m so proud of is our leadership going into this season,” Brey said. “The job that those four guys [Jackson, Auguste, Vasturia and senior forward A.J. Burgett] are doing, setting the tone, running our team, I am so pleased. The two guys we lost [Grant and Connaughton] were sitting across from us tonight, it was cool to look over and see those two guys, they did an unbelievable job, this group, these guys are doing as good a job.”
And while Jackson will continue to draw comparisons to Grant as the season nears its climax, this year’s Irish squad will not live and die on the performance of one player.
“We have some fearless guys and boy it comes at just the right time with March around the corner,” Brey said.
It sure does come at the right time — because great teams win in March, not just great players.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.