Irish, Lumberjacks to meet with Sweet 16 berth up for grabs
Alex Carson | Saturday, March 19, 2016
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — A spot in the Sweet 16 for a second year running is on the line for Notre Dame on Sunday afternoon, when the Irish face upstart No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The Lumberjacks (28-5, 18-0 Southland) haven’t lost since December and secured their place as one of this year’s tournament darlings with a 70-56 win over third-seeded West Virginia on Friday, but Lumberjacks head coach Brad Underwood said he knows the No. 6-seeded Irish (22-11, 11-7 ACC) pose an entirely different challenge.
“We didn’t see many ball screens last night,” Underwood said. “Tomorrow night we’ll see ball screens at every angle and coming from different parts of the floor.”
Stephen F. Austin’s game relies heavily on defensive pressure — the Lumberjacks shot just 30.9 percent from the field but forced 22 turnovers Friday — and Irish head coach Mike Brey said his team will have to limit turnovers to win Sunday.
“We’ve gotta be good with the ball and we’ve gotta control tempo a little bit,” Brey said. “Ball pressure like that sometimes can speed you up and when it does, you turn it over. And that’s been some of our issues.”
The Lumberjacks turn the ball over more than any other team in the nation and grabbed 29 points off those 22 West Virginia turnovers Friday.
“We’ll have to defend as five and try to limit them transition-wise,” Irish junior forward V.J. Beachem said. “We’ve got to try to limit their transition points and points off turnovers.”
If there’s one man that makes Stephen F. Austin click, it’s senior guard/forward Thomas Walkup. Walkup averages 18 points per game and dropped 33 on the Mountaineers in the win Friday, and Brey said it won’t be an easy task containing him.
“You gotta have a couple different guys play him,” Brey said. “I have a lot of respect for him — I don’t know if we’ve played against a guy who has a higher basketball IQ than him. Just a great feel for the game, he’s beautiful to watch play.”
Stephen F. Austin’s success this year might not be a shocking thing to many in college basketball; Underwood tried to get major schools to play his squad, but none answered the calls.
“No one would play them,” Brey said. “He was searching for games. … People are afraid to play his program.”
Sunday’s opponent means something extra to Brey, the former Northwestern State player who scored a career-high 22 points against the Lumberjacks on Jan. 24, 1979.
“On a winter night in 1979 in Nacogdoches, Texas, I was unguardable,” Brey said. “Quite frankly, I was unguardable.
“Now, I’ll give you some more trivia to that. Look at the box score, there’s a guy by Godine on the other team, he had 29. I was guarding him. … But at least I said, ‘I’m gonna try to score tonight.’”
Slow starts have become a trend for Notre Dame: The Irish fell behind 26-13 early and trailed at the half for the 14th time in 21 games Friday night against Michigan, a trend Irish players said has to come to a halt sooner rather than later.
“We understand that we can’t get out to a 10-point deficit every game because it’s tough to crawl back into the game,” Irish junior guard Demetrius Jackson said. “We definitely have been emphasizing a great start.”
“We’ve been saying that a lot, but we just haven’t been doing it,” senior forward Zach Auguste said. “[It’s] something that we’re really emphasizing, especially for us to move on in this tournament, we’re not gonna be able to come out slow because if we dig ourselves in a hole, we might not be able to get out.”
Auguste said Notre Dame can use the momentum from its second half, where the Irish outscored Michigan 41-22, to get off to a good start Sunday.
“For us to reach our goals and get to where we want to be, I think we’re gonna have to take what we did in the second half last game and we need to make sure we do it in the first half as well,” Auguste said.
And despite Stephen F. Austin being one of the lowest-seeded and least-known teams in the field, Auguste said the Irish aren’t taking the Lumberjacks lightly.
“Every team is here for a reason,” Auguste said. “Every team is just as good as the other; rankings don’t really mean too much here. Anything can happen at any given night, so regardless of what the name says on the jersey, you’ve gotta just go out there and compete and that’s something that we’ve recognized and understood.”