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December 9, 2013

Irish avert Bryant's upset bid


NOTRE DAME, Ind. - It’s become a pattern for Notre Dame. Finish the first half strong, slog through the second half.

Notre Dame shot just 28.6 percent from the field (8-of-28) in the second half, including 1-of-10 shooting from three-point range, after closing the first half on an 18-2 run.

Thanks to a stout defensive effort of their own, the Irish (7-2) were able to secure a 70-59 victory over a scrappy Bryant squad from the Northeast Conference.

“We could never really get flowing offensively, so we really had to defend to get out of there tonight,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “Keeping their shooting percentage down is why we won the game.”

Garrick Sherman recorded the first double-double of his career with 14 points and 13 rebounds, and Pat Connaughton added his own daily-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Jerian Grant scored 15 of his points in the first half and seven of his eight second-half points in the final 1:29 to finish with 23 points. Grant converted 11-of-13 free throws.

But the Irish had great difficulty putting the Bulldogs away, much like they did two days earlier against Delaware after a late first-half flourish. Bryant trailed by just four - 56-52 - with 2:37 remaining. The Irish were able to hold the Bulldogs to just 13-of-36 shooting from two-point range.

“We’ll take it,” Brey said. “It was kind of a grinding, ugly one. But a good experience and we have another similar team (North Dakota State of the Summit League) coming in here Wednesday.”

For the Bulldogs, who jumped up to Division I basketball just two seasons ago and lost all but two games in 2011-12, it was a significant step forward under head coach Tim O’Shea.

“To come to one of the most iconic athletic programs in the nation and play a competitive game demonstrates how far we’ve come in a short period of time,” said O’Shea, who has former Boston College/Rhode Island head coach Al Skinner on his staff.

“We were competitive. We weren’t overmatched athletically. We had a series of shots around the rim that didn’t go down. If they go down, we might be sitting here with an upset.”

Notre Dame raced to a 7-0 advantage, only to have Bryant score 17 of the next 27 points to take a five-point lead. But once the Irish corralled the Bulldogs’ three-point shooting, they were able to score 18 of the last 20 points of the half, including a buzzer-beating put-back by Connaughton for a 39-27 halftime lead. Bryant scored just two points over the final 8:27 of the first half

Bryant nailed six three-pointers in the first 11:33 and then just one over the next 25:50.

Grant scored 15 of Notre Dame’s 39 points in the first half, and then scored just one point through the first 18:31 of the second half before connecting on a three-pointer with 1:29 left to stretch Notre Dame’s lead to 59-51. Grant then blocked Dyami Starks’ shot near the basket with 1:13 remaining, and the Irish were able to extend their final advantage to double digits by connecting on 20-of-26 free throws for the game.

“I got a few looks and missed some, and then I tried to force my way into the lane instead of just taking my open shots,” said Grant, who was just 1-of-6 in the second half after a 4-of-6 first half. “I missed a few shots, but I started getting other people involved.”

Grant finished with nine assists and four steals. Six days earlier at Iowa, he had 10 assists. Brey credited Grant with playing the key role in shutting down Starks, who finished with 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting after coming into the game averaging 23.4.

“Starks never could really get going, and that’s a credit to Jerian Grant,” Brey said.

Brey also had positives to say about Connaughton and Sherman.

“I don’t know if I’ve coached a more solid guy,” said Brey of Connaughton. “He just doesn’t let anything affect him. He doesn’t get sideways. To see 11 rebounds, I hope we can keep that going because that’s going to be important. You can’t play small unless that dude is doing that.

“I’m encouraged by Sherm’s rebounding. That’s an area where he can keep getting better and we’ve got to keep riding double-digit rebounds from him.”

Sherman is following a double-double machine, Jack Cooley, who placed a great deal of importance on that statistic.

“I’m not as into it as Jack is,” Sherman laughed. “I don’t check the score sheet as quickly as Jack did. Jack was on top of it. But it’s good because I know that’s what my team needs out of me.”

Alex Francis paced the Bulldogs in scoring with 17 points while Joe O’Shea, the head coach’s nephew, tossed in 13. Francis came into the game shooting 60.4 percent from the field, but converted just 6-of-13.

After playing two games in about a 50-hour span, the Irish have another quick turnaround against North Dakota State, which is projected by many to win the Summit League. Wednesday’s game marks the final regional contest of the BlackRock Gotham Classic. The round-robin tournament concludes in New York’s Madison Square Garden on Dec. 21 against Ohio State.


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