HUTTON: Down-and-out Irish score another big upset
By Mike Hutton 613-0141 or firstname.lastname@example.org January 4, 2014 11:27PM
Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson, right, is greeted by teammate Pat Crowley in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Duke, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame won 79-77. Jackson scored 8 points. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)
Updated: February 6, 2014 6:45AM
SOUTH BEND — These are three clichés that Mike Brey owns: “Let ’er rip,” “I’m the loosest coach in America” and “let’s play like we have nothing to lose.”
He wears a sport jacket, with no tie. The top button of his shirt is always unbuttoned. He doesn’t micromanage. He’s a big-picture guy who likes to delegate, preferably to his older players.
Nobody speaks the language of a team that looks like an orphan, drifting aimlessly into the harsh abyss of a brutal college basketball season, like Brey.
No team has mastered the twisting turns of an unforgiving season and reinvented its whole identity like the Irish have time and time again over the years.
Nobody should ever really count Notre Dame out, no matter how bad the circumstances seem.
Notre Dame, with an odd assortment of players both young and old, playing crucial minutes, all but given up for bottom-of-the-barrel material in the Athletic Coast Conference, upset Duke 79-77 in its ACC opener. Against all odds, when nobody, not even the family dog, thought Notre Dame had a chance against Duke, the Irish, with the loosest coach in America throwing out the occasional fist pumps, let it rip. And they played like they had nothing to lose against the Blue Devils, a team that overwhelms the Irish in terms of pure talent. Man-for-man, there might be one player on the Notre Dame team that Duke would recruit — just to be polite.
“I love it, I love it,” Brey said of his team’s latest reinvention.
It was a magical afternoon for Notre Dame, which sent about a third of the crowd back down the toll road to Chicago grumbling about the ultimate set-up. Jabarai Parker, the Devils’ freshman star who was averaging 21 points and eight rebounds per game, and Mike Krzyzewski are both from Chicago. The Purcell Center was lit up with almost as many blue T-shirts as green ones.
It’s been a lousy couple of weeks — at least publicly — for the Irish. They blew a four-point lead against Ohio State in the final minute and then announced the very next day that their best player, Jerian Grant, was dismissed from school for an academic issue, and Cameron Biedscheid, the most heralded recruit to put a uniform on for Notre Dame perhaps since Luke Zeller, announced he was transferring.
The Blue Devils are the Blue Devils. Parker is an NBA lottery pick and they were ranked seventh by the Associated Press. The Irish didn’t have a for-sure NCAA victory to its credit in the nonconference season.
Brey had turned the program around in 2010 when he invented the burn offense — and the Irish won six of their last seven games to get into the NCAA Tournament. That was the year that Luke Harangody got hurt and he missed a six-week stretch.
He did it last year to a degree when Tim Abromaitis was ruled ineligible at the beginning of the season.
Without Grant, an athletic slasher, Brey has given Eric Atkins, a four-year starter at point guard, the ball and told him to play like it was high school again.
Atkins was clutch down the stretch, breaking through a very porous Blue Devils defense almost at will in the last 10 minutes.
Notre Dame trailed by 10 points with 11:35 left when Brey called a timeout. He didn’t have to say much.
“Eric just said ‘don’t worry about it, we’ll be OK,’ ” Brey said.
And they were.
The magic came in the form a small lineup that Brey decided to go with exclusively. The Blue Devils were killing Notre Dame with their 3-point shooting — they made12-of-28 for the game — and Brey had seen enough.
He sat down Garrick Sherman, the Irish’s big center, and put in Austin Burgett, a 6-9 sophomore forward who is more athletic than he looks.
DeMetrius Jackson, a freshman, hit a big 3-pointer to get the team rolling and Notre Dame proceeded to score 12 straight points. Halfway into the run, the energy at Purcell Pavilion morphed into a loud cacophony of unbridled noise.
The little team that could had found its groove. The 3-pointers that Duke was making before started bouncing off the back of the rim.
Parker was a non-factor, finishing with seven points and four rebounds in perhaps his worst game of the year.
When it was over, after the final shot by Duke from half-court at the buzzer fell harmlessly short, Atkins, who finished with 19 points and 11 assists, waved the giddy crowd back to the stands. The students wanted to rush the floor. He made them stay.
“I was a little upset,” Atkins said. “I wanted them to act like they had been there before.”
It’s not clear what the next trick will be for Notre Dame. They play North Carolina State at home on Tuesday. It likely won’t be as easy now. Teams start to get exposed the more they play. It’s clear, though, that Notre Dame will continue to play like it has nothing to lose under the loosest coach in American.