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Men’s Basketball: Atkins leads team to win in season opener

Andrew Gastelum | Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sophomore guard Eric Atkins’ staggering crossover was the perfect representation of his career-high performance in Saturday’s season opener at the Purcell Pavilion: too much to handle.

Atkins led the Irish (1-0) with 27 points and six assists in Notre Dame’s 80-67 win over Mississippi Valley State (0-1). The sophomore had a new career high in the first half alone, connecting on each of his four shots for 16 points amid the absence of suspended fifth-year forward Tim Abromaitis due to an NCAA eligibility violation.

“I think my teammates just found me today,” Atkins said. “And coach told me to be aggressive. I think I started early being aggressive and it kind of just went from there. When the first jumper went down, I didn’t think I would miss again and I just told myself to keep shooting. With Tim being out, I felt like I had to step up and score a little more than I would usually.”

The Irish started off hot, putting together a 10-2 run in the first four minutes of the game. At the 16-miniute mark, Atkins severely crossed over his defender before splitting two defenders and finished with a nifty finger roll at the basketball, drawing a large outburst from the crowd.

“This group is still trying to find itself and I thought we had a bunch of different guys who stepped up for us,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “I thought Eric was a man and he sensed what he needed to do. Overall, I thought we were searching for that offensive rhythm at times and he found that he had to do some things sometimes and he did. Just his overall demeanor was key for us and maybe that is the benefit of having [Abromaitis] out is that he has to do that even more so this week to speed up the leadership, [process] for him.”

Despite a quick comeback from the Delta Devils that gave them a 16-15 advantage, the Irish took the lead for good with just under 10 minutes left in the first half. Sophomore guard Jerian Grant sparked the Irish late in the first half, scoring eight of his 11 total points while fifth-year forward Scott Martin struggled from the field despite scoring a quiet 15 points. Junior guard Joey Brooks also provided an unexpected offensive boost for the Irish with eight points in the second half.

“From the first exhibition, it’s amazing the improvement [Grant made] and that is what excites me about our team,” Brey said. “At times he carried us and he had a few big-time plays for us. And Joey was fabulous. He made big defensive plays and he took his shots at the right time. His overall game was flowing.”

Notre Dame sealed the game with a 22-7 run late in the second half after the Delta Devils came within two points with 10:36 left in the game. Sparks flew with 6:12 left in the game when Mississippi Valley State coach Sean Woods was ejected after arguing a blocking call and throwing his jacket into the second row behind the Delta Devils’ bench. Atkins proceeded to sink four-straight free throws, contributing to the 24 free throws made by the Irish throughout the course of the game.

The Irish, meanwhile, will have a quick turnaround with three games in five days, starting with a veteran Detroit team Monday night led by upstart sophomore guard Ray McCallum Jr.

“This is a Big East game [on Monday], I tell our guys,” Brey said. “I thought [on Saturday] our fans were great and our students were great. But I really hope on Monday night, as much as we delivered, it looks more like the last time we played here on a Monday night against Villanova. We really need the place to be electric and we need the help of our sixth man to beat Detroit. They are old, they have played together and they are physical. This is their year to get the [NCAA] bid.”

Notre Dame will take on the Titans (1-0) at 9 p.m. tonight at the Purcell Pavilion in a game that will be televised on ESPNU.


Contact Andrew Gastelum at [email protected]