Notre Dame’s Supporting Cast Provides Staying Power

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 6th, 2015

Most of the accolades associated with Notre Dame’s 14-1 start have been bestowed on star senior Jerian Grant, the ACC’s second-leading scorer and top assist man. Skepticism over the Irish’s relatively unimposing non-conference slate were correlated questions about how the team would operate when Grant was held in check. After a thrilling one-point win over North Carolina in Chapel Hill last night, the Notre Dame trio of Zach Auguste, Demetrius Jackson and Pat Connaughton have silenced those questions and put the rest of the conference on notice that the Irish are a team capable of contending with the ACC’s elite.

Zach Auguste has had a great start to ACC play, including the winning bucket against North Carolina (AP Photo)

Zach Auguste has had a great start to ACC play, including the winning bucket against North Carolina (AP Photo)

It was apparent early in Monday’s game that North Carolina’s top defender, J.P. Tokoto, was tasked with slowing Grant. He and the other Tar Heels who took turns defending the explosive wing were extremely successful, as Grant contributed a season-low eight points on 1-of-8 shooting from the field and eventually fouling out. With as much as Grant has produced this year — he uses a quarter of the Irish’s offensive possessions — such a performance would have appeared to doom the Irish in a tough road environment. Instead, Mike Brey’s team showed that its supporting cast is strong enough to overcome his occasional lack of production by contributing a combined 49 points and 16 rebounds.

In his first three conference games this season, Auguste has been a highly efficient player in the post, scoring 57 points on 21-of-31 shooting from the field and 15-of-17 from the free throw line. His basket with a little over a minute to go last night proved to be the game-winner, and his recent outstanding performances have come against two of the more imposing front lines in the ACC. On the perimeter, Jackson and Connaughton have flown under the radar as well, but both can step up when necessary. The duo’s early onslaught of threes last night (6-of-12) forced North Carolina to play from behind, and in the game against Georgia Tech, both hit clutch shots in regulation and the overtime periods. There’s no doubt that playing without Grant while he was on academic suspension last year helped these players develop confidence in their abilities. Mike Brey said as much after the game: “We’ve made great progress there as you know, and I’m really proud that we lose Jerian [Grant] and we do it. I thought that was really another step forward for this group to do it without Jerian. I thought Zach Auguste was fabulous in the second half on both ends of the court. Connaughton does his thing. This group loves playing together. It’s a group you love coaching every day, and to get a road win like this early in the ACC season is really a confidence-builder.”

Despite a 3-0 league record, there will still be questions about the Irish’s legitimacy because of how tight both recent games were. It took Notre Dame two overtimes on their home floor to come away with a win against Georgia Tech, and they held on to what was at one time an 11-point second-half lead against North Carolina by the skin of their teeth. There is not a lot of depth on this roster, so any serious foul trouble (or injuries) to multiple players could make things difficult, but they answered two very big questions with last night’s win in Chapel Hill — first, that the Irish can beat a good team in a hostile road environment, and second, that they can overcome an off night from one of the nation’s best players. The surprising result is that Brey’s team — off to its best start in his 15 years at the helm — is a group that the ACC’s top tier will need to take seriously.

Lathan Wells (77 Posts)

A 30-year old unabashed college basketball fan, I currently reside in Richmond, Virginia. I especially enjoy following the ACC and the local teams, VCU and the University of Richmond. I hope to continue my journalistic pursuits in the sports arena full-time in the future, but in the meantime I am really enjoying covering the greatest sport there is for RTC. Follow me on Twitter @prohibitivefav.

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