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Men’s Basketball

Carson: Win shows Irish evolution over course of year

| Monday, February 8, 2016

Irish junior guard Demetrius Jackson, left, and senior forward Zach Auguste talk following a play in Notre Dame’s 80-76 win over No. 2 North Carolina on Saturday night at Purcell Pavilion.Emmet Farnan | The Observer

Irish junior guard Demetrius Jackson, left, and senior forward Zach Auguste talk following a play in Notre Dame’s 80-76 win over No. 2 North Carolina on Saturday night at Purcell Pavilion.

What a difference time makes.

Seven weeks ago, with a 16-point, second-half lead against Indiana at the Crossroads Classic, Notre Dame capitulated. The Irish were outscored 40-17 over the game’s final 16 minutes that day at Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse, giving away a win that good teams secure.

For the Irish that day, not everyone stepped up. Sophomore forward Bonzie Colson notched a then-career-high 24 points and junior guard V.J. Beachem dropped 18, but the rest of Notre Dame’s squad was missing in action late.

Fast forward 49 days and you’ll see one thing: a completely different story.

With fewer than three minutes to play in the first half Saturday, Notre Dame was going nowhere. Like against Indiana, not enough bodies showed up. Sure, senior forward Zach Auguste had 13 of his team’s 22 points, but the Irish also trailed by 15.

But one by one, Notre Dame’s crew rallied. First it was junior guard Demetrius Jackson, who twice got to the line in the final minutes to bring the Irish closer. Then it was Colson, who grabbed Notre Dame’s first five second-half points to keep the game within reach.

Once junior guard Steve Vasturia buried a 3-pointer — Notre Dame’s first of the game — 5:48 into the second half and V.J. Beachem knocked down his first field goal of the night a few minutes later, the starting five had joined the fold.

It let Notre Dame do the opposite of what it did seven weeks ago: sin from a near-impossible position rather than lose from a near-unassailable one.

That Indiana loss looked like a backbreaker, and a couple weeks later, when Notre Dame was simply outplayed by Virginia, it looked like the most it could hope for was to sneak into the tournament as a double-digit seed, maybe pull a first-round upset but likely fall out of the field before the end of the first weekend.

A Jan. 9 home loss to Pittsburgh, in which the Irish started each half slowly in an 86-82 loss, seemed to further reinforce that.

But a funny thing happened along the way to mediocrity: Guys stepped up, freshman guard Rex Pflueger emerged, and the Irish turned what could have been a lost season into one with loads of promise.

If the win at Duke on Jan. 16 didn’t prove this Irish team was still capable of matching up with the most talented teams in college basketball, Saturday’s one over No. 2 North Carolina did. This is a year of great parity in the sport — a three-loss team is almost certain to hold the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll when it’s released Monday — and on any given night, Notre Dame has shown its ability to play with anyone.

While Notre Dame’s next two games are tough — a trip to Clemson isn’t easy, while No. 19 Louisville will still be a tough beat next Saturday despite its postseason ban — the final five ACC games aren’t too difficult for Irish head coach Mike Brey’s squad, with No. 17 Miami (Fla.)’s visit the only game against a team in the top half of the league standings.

And Notre Dame’s veteran core? It’s been there before in tough games against the nation’s best, where the Irish thrived last year, notching two wins against North Carolina.

“It’s one of the things I said before the game that I thought was an advantage for us,” Brey said. “We beat ’em twice last year, we were able to come back and dig it out twice in Chapel Hill and in Greensboro in the [ACC] championship game. And I just think — the nucleus of guys, there’s a big nucleus in my locker room that did that — and I said, ‘I think we’re gonna be in the same position again fellas; let’s just keep the heat on ‘em.’”

Just as Brey projected, Notre Dame found itself in the same position Saturday as it did last year against the Tar Heels. And just as it happened a year ago, the Irish pulled through.

At the end of the day, here’s where we sit: The Irish have shown they can play with the nation’s best — remember, they also hold a win over No. 5 Iowa — when things are clicking. They have an opportunity to go on a roll.

So I’ll ask: Why can’t Notre Dame do it all over again?

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

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson is a senior ACMS major (still!) living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson is now a Senior Sports Writer, covering Irish baseball as he tries to forget he’s graduating soon. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Juicy J’s verse in “Dark Horse” is the greatest of all time, and now wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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