South Bend – Notre Dame used a 23-0 run near the end of the first half to subdue an inexperienced Sam Houston State team, 74-41 at the Purcell Pavilion.
Leading 15-14 at the 8:16 mark of the opening stanza, Mike Brey’s short-handed group rode a three-point barrage by freshman swingman Pat Connaughton – one that helped extend the lead to 38-14 with just over a minute remaining. Already highly regarded for his vertical leap and ability to get to the basket, Connaughton buried four of five three points attempts over a 7-minute span to put the game out of reasonable reach for the overwhelmed visitors, who scored a put-back in the half’s final minute to avoid a scoreless final 8:16.
Serving in what will likely be a season-long sixth-man role, Connaughton scored 17 of his career-high 24 points prior to the break, connecting of 6 of 8 shots including 5 of 7 from long range.
“It’s a tribute to the guys, because of them I got open shots,” Connaughton said of his teammates, admitting he gained confidence as the shots started to fall. “Then you’re just playing basketball.”
The Irish were playing their third game without pre-season All Big East selection Tim Abromaitis (NCAA suspension) and were also sans sophomore point guard Eric Atkins (flu).
“We knew everybody was going to get minutes today so everyone played with a lot of confidence,” said redshirt-freshman Jerian Grant.
Grant supported Connaughton’s effort, finishing with a personal best 17 points on 6 for 6 shooting in his third career outing. Grant hit Connaughton with a behind-the-back feed in transition for the second half’s highlight play, and Connaughton rewarded the sparse crowd with a two-handed flush. Grant threw down a flying one-handed tomahawk slam of his own minutes later.
Connaughton referenced that he and Grant had a competition to see which of the pair would register the first dunk of the season. “I really wanted the first one but when I saw Pat behind me I knew I was going to give it to him. I was thinking alley-oop but I wanted to make it a little flashy so I went behind the back. He finished it for me.”
Connaughton added of the play, “He did all the work, all I had to do was jump.”
The pair is likely to be in competition for minutes going forward when Abromaitis returns to the fray. “I want him to do well and I’m sure he wants me to do well,” Grant said of the explosive freshman.
Connaughton scored 10 points, grabbed nine rebounds, and was a constant presence above the rim in a hard-fought win over Detroit Monday night, doing most of the damage in 17 second-half minutes.
Senior Scott Martin scored 11 and sophomore Tom Knight tied his career-high with seven points in 19 minutes off the bench for the Irish.
Marcus James led the visitors with 16 points as the Bearkats (yes, with a “k”) connected on just 18 of 53 shots during the contest; 3 for 15 from beyond the arc. Notre Dame converted 27 of 51 field goal attempts including a 10-19 effort from long range.
Though the teams fought to a relative standstill on the boards, the Irish forced 18 Bearkats turnovers while committing just nine.
Jack Cooley tied Grant for the team-high with six rebounds while both Martin and Connaughton added five caroms. Starter Joey Brooks was limited to 12 minutes due to illness. Sophomore Alex Dragicevich manned the point guard role in Atkins' absence, finishing with seven points, three assists and a turnover in 33 minutes.
Notre Dame entertains Delaware State at the Purcell Pavilion on Friday – the fourth game in seven days for the Irish, all without Abromaitis who’ll return for a November 21 battle vs. Missouri at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, the official semi-final round of the ongoing CBE (College Basketball Experience) Classic.
The winner/loser of the Irish/Tigers tussle will move on to face the same from the other semi-final between Georgia and California the following evening.