Sophomore guard Pat Connaughton has turned positive practice sessions into offensive outbursts in game situations with Notre Dame just a few weeks away from the start of Big East Conference play. His second consecutive season-high performance Monday night helped No. 22 Notre Dame fend off a determined IPFW squad, 74-62, at Purcell Pavilion.
Sophomore Pat Connaughton's offense has come alive over the last two games
The 6-foot-5 guard led the Fighting Irish (10-1) with 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting just two days after scoring 16 points in a win over Purdue. He drained his only 3-point attempt of the evening and attacked the rim for a number of his six remaining baskets — something ND head coach Mike Brey has been urging Connaughton to do all season.
On top of carrying the team offensively, Connaughton held Mastadons guard Frank Gaines, who entered the contest averaging 20 points per game, to just seven points on 2-for-14 shooting.
“I think that’s really helped us,” Brey said of Connaughton’s willingness to drive a year after mostly spotting up behind the arc. “He was doing it in practice, but he started doing that more against Purdue and we’ve kind of tried to keep motivating him to do that. It just gives us a whole different element. He can finish. He can always finish around there. He just needed to do it more. The thing that he’s doing is getting in there with two dribbles and making passes. He didn’t do that at all last year. That’s where he’s made big improvements. And again, we ask him to guard the best guy, and he just goes, ‘Thank you very much, I’ll take that.’ He’s just really mature.”
“I obviously had to work on it,” Connaughton said. “I had to work on my handle and I had to get my dribble better. But it was also something I didn’t do as much last year more so because maybe it wasn’t my role. I don’t know why, maybe it was just because I was a freshman and not as ready.”
It wasn’t a particularly stellar night for the Irish backcourt, which was responsible for three of the team’s nine first-half turnovers. Like against the Boilermakers, however, the typically turnover-free Irish tightened up in the second half, committing only four more giveaways.
“Our guards weren’t as good tonight,” Brey said. “They weren’t as good as they’ve been, and when they aren’t, we labor.”
Notre Dame jumped out to a 40-28 halftime lead, with Connaughton putting up 11 points on 4-for-6 shooting from the field in the first 20 minutes. Sixth-year Scott Martin made 3 of 4 attempts from behind the arc in route to nine first-half points. Notre Dame shot 55.6 percent (15-for-27) in the opening 20 minutes. The Mastodons made just 12 of 38 attempts (31.6 percent) in the first half.
Notre Dame outscored IPFW 6-1 at the foul line and 18-16 in the paint, but the Mastodons bested the Irish in second-chance points (8-5) and points off turnovers (9-7).
In the second half, the Irish extended the advantage to as many as 19 points with 13:35 remaining, but the Mastodons (5-7) refused to go away against many Notre Dame reserves.
“I like that we’ve found out a lot about who we are. I’ve said to these guys that I think defensively we’ve from the first day, which I was really pleased with,” Brey explained. “I don’t think our offensive confidence or identity really showed itself until the Chicago State-Kentucky week, and off of that we’ve gotten more confident offensively. Martin’s shooting the ball, Connaughton’s doing his thing, Sherman and Biedscheid are coming in and giving us stuff scoring.
“I still think we’re figuring that out, but we’re further along offensively. These are an important four days — two days of practices, two games — we’ve got to get something out of them because we don’t play until Jan. 5. We’ve got a heckuva gap. We’ve got a bye the first week. I wish the Big East would have let me know earlier or I would have scheduled a game after Christmas. … We’ve got a lot of practice when we come back on the 26th.
Senior forward Jack Cooley finished with 14 points and eight rebounds for Notre Dame, which shot 51.8 percent (29-for-56) for the game. Martin ended the night with 13 points and seven boards to round out the Irish players in double-figures.
“I’m pleased with where we’re at,” said Brey, whose team takes on visiting Kennesaw State Wednesday at 7 p.m and Niagara Friday. “We’ve got a chance to get to 12-1 and then the real bullets start flying [with conference play].