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Men’s Basketball: Notre Dame looks to establish streak

By Mike Monaco | Wednesday, December 11, 2013


After winning its first two games of the BlackRock Gotham Classic by an average of eight points, Notre Dame welcomes a team Irish coach Mike Brey calls “the best” of the three regional-round tournament opponents when North Dakota State visits Purcell Pavilion tonight.

The Irish (7-2) snuck past Delaware, 80-75, on Saturday and had trouble closing out Bryant on Monday before claiming a 70-59 victory.

“We are playing three teams very similar that can win their league,” Brey said after Monday’s win. “I think [North Dakota State] is better than the two we just played. I think they are the best.”

The veteran Bison (6-3) were picked to win the Summit League, receiving 25 of 28 first-place votes in the preseason poll. Four seniors average double-figure points, including guard Taylor Braun, who leads the squad with 16.6 points per game.

After a 1-2 start to its season, North Dakota State has won five of its last six games, most recently defeating Bryant, 66-62, on Saturday. Braun and senior forwards TrayVonn Wright and Marshall Bjorklund combined for 47 of the Bison’s points in the victory, and the defense limited Bryant to 41.1 percent shooting from the field.

They jam it in defensively and, like these previous two teams, they are older and they’ve won together,” Brey said of the Bison. “So they are coming in loose.”

A similarly veteran Notre Dame squad enters the matchup after struggling to pull away in its past two games. The Irish led by only one point with 2:09 remaining in regulation Saturday and held a slim four-point edge with 2:37 to go in Monday’s game.

“I think these have been hard games for us, and I think that’s been great for our development,” Brey said. “I think we’ve played good teams. I give them credit, and I tip my hat to them because they are pretty experienced. So I’m not going to lose sleep on that.”

Irish senior guard Jerian Grant has done his best to ice the past two games, hitting a pair of key jumpers in the final two minutes against Delaware as part of a 25-point performance and pouring in a quick seven points in the last three minutes Monday, en route to a 23-point outing.

“We are not going to blow out teams all the time,” Grant said. “So to be in close games, to learn how to execute down the stretch, is good.”

Senior center Garrick Sherman and junior forward Pat Connaughton helped propel the Irish against Bryant, as Sherman logged 14 points, a career-high 13 rebounds and three blocks and Connaughton added 17 points and 11 boards. Brey pointed to the importance of those rebounding totals, in particular, especially considering the lack of size in Notre Dame’s new starting lineup – consisting of Sherman, Connaughton, Grant, senior guard Eric Atkins and freshman guard Demetrius Jackson – that has opened each of the past four games.

Sherman leads the Irish with 7.4 rebounds per game, followed closely by Connaughton’s 7.2 boards per game average.

“I’m encouraged by [Sherman’s] rebounding because that’s an area where he can keep getting better, and we’ve got to keep riding the double-digit rebounding from him,” Brey said. “You can’t play small unless [Connaughton’s] doing that. Because he does that, we can play the small lineup long periods of time. He’s just so dependable, reliable.”

Notre Dame will play its third game in five days when it closes out the regional round of the BlackRock Gotham Classic tonight against the Bison. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion.

Contact Mike Monaco at [email protected].