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Irish Extra: Irish Breeze in Blacksburg

Zach Auguste and his Irish teammates had a busy 36 hours on their trip to Virginia Tech earlier this week.

Jan. 23, 2015

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The eight-to-five delegation on the University of Notre Dame campus begins to filter its way home on a not-unreasonable Wednesday as far as January weather goes. 

Inside the Joyce Center on the southeast edge of campus, there's plenty of activity on the Purcell Pavilion court. Mike Brey's eighth-ranked Irish men's basketball team is preparing for its game in a little more than 24 hours against Virginia Tech at Blacksburg, and the Notre Dame head coach is into it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

4:50 p.m. - Clad in black shorts, a grey long-sleeved crew-neck pullover shirt and royal blue Under Armour shoes, Brey is more than a little active as he puts his team through its paces.

The white practice jerseys designate starters, and that group works against the blue jerseys. Brey is vocal as the white team plays defense.

4:58 p.m. - Brey calls for Bonzie Colson and V.J. Beachem to flip from blue to white, as the Irish check out a variety of lineup combinations.

"Let's go white, I want to see you rebound," says Brey. 

The shot clock is on, assistant coaches Martin Ingelsby and Rod Balanis wield whistles, and Brey appears to be working nearly as hard as his players, twitching and turning with every pass and shot attempt.

Austin Torres switches to the white unit, and Brey quickly offers encouragement:

"Great look, great look. Be active, Torres. Do stuff out there. Great curl, yes sir." 

5:02 p.m. - There's a constant rotation of players through the white jerseys. "Get on that board, ZA (Zach Auguste)," says Brey.

There's not much of an audience at Purcell, other than a handful of student managers, deputy athletics director Jim Fraleigh, trainer Skip Meyer, operations coordinator Harold Swanagan and radio announcer Jack Nolan. Irish lacrosse coach Kevin Corrigan and his son Will sit in some corner seats and take in a portion of the workout.

Brey knows the practice agenda by heart as he calls out the various segments.

The shot clock is set at 10 seconds and the white team practices closing out on defense.

"Lot of shooters on the floor tomorrow night," says Brey. "High hand, big hand. Back up, run it again. Everybody's a shooter." 

5:10 p.m. - "Shoot two (free throws) and rotate," calls out the head coach. The white jerseys are at the east end of the court, the blue squad at the west.

The players take a quick water break but after a minute or so they are back at it. 

5:12 p.m. - Brey meets with the white group in a huddle, while assistant coach Anthony Solomon does the same with the blue unit. The blue team plays zone defense and the groups go up and down, five on five.

"Cut, V.J., cut," calls Demetrius Jackson.

Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton play like the senior veterans they are. Grant swishes a short fadeaway--then on the next possession he throws the ball crosscourt to Connaughton, gets the ball back and cleanly knocks down a three. 

5:17 p.m. - Auguste makes a nice post move to score, and Brey is pleased.

The next five minutes are all devoted to shooting. Guards and wings fire mostly three-pointers at the west end. Big guys try jumpers from the free-throw line extended at the other.

The scoreboard totals made baskets.

"We broke the record last time, didn't we?" Brey asks.

The clock runs down and the board reads 208. 

Finally, the scoreboard shows the game tied at 70 and every player on the squad shoots a free throw, one at a time. Jackson is last--he misses his first two, downs the third and the Irish are officially done.

Brey exits the court quickly and the players finish with a barrage of half-court attempts. Torres finally connects and Jackson quickly follows suit. Most of the team sticks around at least a few more minutes to hoist a few more shot attempts.

Connaughton and Steve Vasturia watch from the bench as Austin Burgett shoots threes and Eric Katenda tries the free-throw line. Finally, Connaughton and Vasturia head to the west basket and try to connect on three straight from various spots at the three-point line.

Connaughton spots walk-on Matt Gregory knocking down a three at the other end and yells out a compliment. With the bus to the airport less than an hour away from departing, the players head back to the locker room a few at a time.

With some time to spare Nolan prints out his depth charts with stats and notes ready for Thursday night's game.

A mid-afternoon report on the web site of the Roanoke newspaper says Virginia Tech will again be short-handed--missing freshman and leading scorer Justin Bibbs (13.6 points per game) with a concussion suffered last Friday in practice, as well as center and leading rebounder Joey van Zegeran who will miss his fifth straight game due to a suspension. (Ultimately Virginia Tech announces just prior to game time that van Zegeran has been permanently separated from the team.)

As the Irish players exit the locker room after showering, there's a table with Jimmy John's sandwich boxes, plus water, Gatorade and soft drink options. The Irish bus sits inside the Gate 6 garage door.

It's an ultra-casual mode for the travel party, as travel sweats and Under Armour shoes are the rule.

6:23 p.m. - Brey is on the bus, in his usual seat in the second row on the left. There's a bit of superstition involved here. Everyone in the travel party basically sits in the same seat on every trip.

6:30 p.m. - The bus pulls out exactly on time and heads down Angela Boulevard toward Atlantic Aviation on the north side of Michiana Regional Airport. Student manager Billy Hughes hands out updated itineraries along with small slips that indicate seat assignments for the plane.

It's 34 degrees and cloudy as the Irish prepare to depart. The players routinely leave the bus first, and Brey is the last to step off.  Backpacks, headsets, laptops and iPads are the rule on the plane.

7:19 p.m. - The ADI Embraer145 lifts smoothly into the western sky, then banks left and heads toward Virginia.

8:22 p.m. - It's 45 degrees at touchdown at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport. The bus driver who meets the team is the same one who led Notre Dame on trips to Chapel Hill and Atlanta recently. During the 40-minute bus ride to Blacksburg, the bus televisions show a handful of live college basketball games, as the Irish first catch North Carolina's lead over Wake Forest, then the finish of the St. John's one-point win over Marquette, the end of Michigan State's win over Penn State, then onto the early minutes of Purdue playing at Illinois. There's chatter in the front of the bus as the Irish coaches discuss personnel on the games they watch.

In the rear of the bus, Connaughton and Vasturia sit together watching "Frozen." 

9:05p.m. - The bus eases on to Exit 118B toward Blacksburg on State Route 460 West. 

9:18 p.m. - The Irish pull up in front of The Inn at Virginia Tech.

9:45 p.m.--In a first-floor meeting room at the hotel, the Irish party occupies five tables while partaking in chicken, beef, shrimp, stir fry and fajitas. Brey is the last to arrive and the last to leave the room.

10:30 p.m. - The Irish student managers, along with Father Pete McCormick (the Irish team chaplain) and ticket office rep John Chermak, head to the Virginia Tech arena to play a basketball game against the Hokie managers. The Irish group is competitive and pulls to within two with two and a half minutes remaining before falling. Recent outcomes have seen the managers lose their game, and then the Irish prevail in the varsity event. Brey (and everyone else) would deem that a good trade-off, all things considered. By 12:30 a.m. the Notre Dame group is back at the hotel.

Thursday, January 22, 2015 

9 a.m. - The morning edition of the Roanoke newspaper lists the Irish as nine-and-a-half point favorites against the Hokies, who have not played a home game since Jan. 3.

The page-one headline in the sports section reads, "Prolific Irish can adjust to any tempo."

The lead of the story says, "The Virginia Tech men's basketball team is undermanned and 0-for-January, but there will still be a very good squad on display at Cassell Coliseum tonight."

Former Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, who did the television analysis a week ago on the Irish game at North Carolina, is quoted as saying, "It's a pleasure to watch them (Notre Dame) practice because they make shots. I watch teams in practice and teams can't shoot the ball. They maximize their offensive possessions. They don't take bad shots."

It's Notre Dame's first visit to Blacksburg since 2004 in its Big East days. Irish radio analyst Torrian Jones remembers Notre Dame's first visit to Blacksburg in Jones' freshman season in 2001 when the Irish clinched the Big East Conference West Division title with a win here.

Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams, a former Big East adversary from his Marquette days, says, "We can't turn it over because they're not going to turn it over. The value of the possession will be ginormous . . . "

The game is listed as a sellout.

10:45 a.m. - The Irish party gathers for Mass. Burgett handles the reading, and Grant passes out the St. Stephen medals for the day.

The group quickly moves into breakfast mode, with a buffet of pancakes, oatmeal, scrambled eggs, egg whites, bacon, sausage, potatoes and bagels. 

11:45 a.m. - The bus snakes its way through the Virginia Tech campus on a sunny, blue-sky 36-degree day. The Notre Dame hotel is at the edge of campus and is made of the similar grey-tan stone that dominates the campus look. 

Says Brey, "The University owns the quarry where it comes from about six miles from here."

The bus stops at the Virginia Tech arena, adjacent to the football stadium. A Tech representative meets the team and ushers the group into the facility. The team bypasses the locker room and heads straight to the court. Within minutes the players have doffed their sweats and are getting shots up. They work at the bottom of an empty arena of wooden chair-back seats.

Brey visits with a handful of Virginia Tech acquaintances--former Tech men's coach Charlie Moir (1976-87), Charlie's son Page (in his 26th season as coach at nearby Roanoke College and on the National Association of Basketball Coaches board with Brey) and current Tech women's coach Dennis Wolff, a long-time Brey colleague and a former head men's coach for 15 years at Boston University. The Tech contingent suggests current football coach Frank Beamer will stop by the locker room tonight to say hello to Brey.

Brey has been texting with former Tech coach and current ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg about a bizarre play in a previous Irish-Hokie clash here.

Brey demonstrates how former Irish guard Chris Quinn was dribbling and protecting the ball near the Virginia Tech bench when Greenberg inadvertently knocked the basketball the other direction, leading to a Tech dunk just before halftime.

"I'm yelling at the officials, but no one saw it happen," says Brey. 

"So Seth texts me, `To this day, I can say I picked Chris Quinn's pocket.'"

12:20 p.m. - The Irish assistants and managers feed the ball to the Irish players as they go through their shooting routines. There's lots of clapping and talk and chatter.

"How many can we hit?" asks Brey. "Execute out there--we're going to get out of the gate tonight." 

The white jerseys run through a series of sets with no defense, then the blue unit does the same.

12:45 p.m. - Solomon, who has the scouting assignment tonight, organizes the blue unit in Virginia Tech sets to show what Notre Dame will face defensively this evening. The Irish run a play and make adjustments, all designed to create a comfort level for the Irish. Brey stands with arms folded at midcourt.

With notes in hand, Solomon shows exactly what the Irish should expect to see from Virginia Tech players in a few hours. There's not much shooting--it's about spacing and defensive stance and switching and communication.

The Irish coaches want to make sure the players are prepared should Tech choose a faster pace or more of a slow-down effort.

The Notre Dame players seem to know the routine almost by heart, as the team moves from drill to drill.

12:57 p.m. - The Irish go back to shooting for five minutes, white and blue jerseys mixed. It's a loose and yet business-like environment with the game some six hours away. Brey leans on the press table to chat with television analyst Debbie Antonelli.

Notes Brey, "Debbie says they've got a stat that shows Notre Dame and Davidson are the only teams in the country that have five guys that have hit at least 25 threes (for the Irish that's Connaughton with 51, Jackson with 30, Grant with 29, Beachem with 29 and Vasturia with 26)."

1 p.m. - Burgett finally downs a mid-court shot, in the usual end-of-practice ritual, after a few dozen misfires. A few players opt for extra free throws or threes, others watch from the bench. Connaughton is one of the last to finish, getting in more than his share of free throws and long-distance tries. For a few moments, heads are down on the bench as virtually all the players check their cell phones.

Solomon visits with longtime Virginia sportswriter David Teel, now with the Newport News paper--and Brey stops to say hello as well.

The Irish are done, they grab their sweats and head back to the bus and on to the hotel. Ingelsby and Balanis skip the bus ride and walk back to the hotel. 

"When my hair's all but gone and my memory fades . . .

"And the crowds don't remember my name . . .

"When my hands don't play the strings the same way . . .  

The words to Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" resonate inside the bus on the quick ride.

Player ticket demand is light for tonight. Connaughton's parents are regulars at most road games, but there are only a few other team requests.

Connaughton is the last player off the bus, with his headphones on, as the Irish players file past the cozy working fireplace just inside the hotel front door. The team's pre-game meal is 90 minutes away. It's time for the players to get off their feet.

3 p.m. - The Notre Dame squad reunites in its meeting room for a pre-game meal of soup, sandwiches (chicken and BLTs), salad, spaghetti, fish, green beans and fruit. Players arrive mostly in T-shirts, shorts, flip-flops and slides.

Most everybody sits at the same table as last night and this morning--and many in the same seat. There are two tables for players, one for coaches, two for support staff.

3:22 p.m. - Brey fires up some quick video clips for the squad to see. The first batch is offensive successes from the North Carolina and Georgia Tech games, titled "HOW WE WIN ON THE ROAD."

Says Brey, "That sums up who we are and how we win--poise, early movement, early cutting, getting in attack mode early. It's offensive execution, especially in the first half.

"We intelligently and calmly get ourselves organized. . . . That's a big-time possession on the road with the crowd going off."

The team watches what turned out to be the winning points in Chapel Hill, on a put-back by Auguste. Says Brey, "I envision you (Auguste) doing some of that stuff tonight. 

"Let's watch tape tomorrow before practice of great cuts (from tonight)."

Next comes what became the game-winner at Georgia Tech, a step-back jumper by Grant. 

"A heck of a big shot at a big time," says Brey.

Next it's on to a couple of road defensive clips, again from the Carolina and Georgia Tech wins.

"Great ball pressure, yes sir. . . . We're moving our feet. We're not getting beat. . . . Great rotation. It's defending to win on the road."

3:30 p.m. - With the video review done, the Irish players quickly exit the room.

Nolan sits with Brey and tapes their pre-game radio piece. Here are a few of Brey's thoughts: 

-- "Hard to believe we haven't been here for more than 10 years." 

-- "We've seen different guys be successful with different groups." 

-- On Auguste--"We could use him to have a breakout night for us. A key was having him back for three days of practice this week and getting him back in rhythm."

-- On Irish three-point shooting--"It's a key weapon for us, and we're getting good looks."

-- On the matchup--"This is a group (Virginia Tech) that has nothing to lose. They take more threes than anyone in the league and we have to be prepared."

-- On his team--"They've embraced these tough road atmospheres and it's energized them."

Brey's keys to the game? "Can we get off to a good start? Can we be aware of their three-point shooting? They'll make some, but we've got to be there challenging them."

5:20 p.m. - It's already game mode. Tip-off is less than two hours away as the Irish board the bus. Many of the players are listening to their own tunes via headphones or ear buds. It's an upbeat vibe as the Irish head to work.

5:27 p.m. -- Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" echoes as the players leave the bus first and head into the arena.

The coaches have their own separate small room across the hall from the visiting team locker room and Brey and his staff set up shop there.

The assistants are quickly back in the locker room and on the floor, but Brey spends most of the next 90 minutes here--and it's maybe the most agonizing time for a coach. Brey will spend quiet time reviewing his notes and game plan, but there's little anyone can do now with the team. The players are either ready to play the game--or not. 

Connaughton is a huge New England Patriots fan and wears a Patriot stocking cap constantly. He's taken plenty of ribbing today after the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady news conferences on "deflate-gate." But no one cares about any of that for the next few hours.

Meyer tapes the ankles of Colson and then Vasturia in the locker room.

5:45 p.m. - Grant, who never puts on his jersey until game time, is out hoisting shots in a tech shirt. For him, it's enough of a physical game that he wears light padding beneath his uniform. 

5:50 p.m. - Connaughton slowly walks to the court. He chats with Grant and Auguste, asks for a ball and then quickly flips it to Grant.

As the obvious veteran leaders of the group, Grant and Connaughton project a confident, no-nonsense, let's-get-to-work vibe that seemingly has been contagious.

5:55 p.m. - Beamer, the Virginia Tech football coach and a long-time Brey acquaintance, stops by to visit with the Irish head coach.

6 p.m. - The Virginia Tech lineup is posted on the whiteboard in the Irish locker room, with defensive assignments noted.

Listed defensive keys are transition awareness, execution of ball-screen coverages and rebounding. Offensive keys are great decisions with the ball, sprint for easies and quality half-court movement.

Irish strength and conditioning coordinator Tony Rolinski leads the team on the court in its dynamic stretch, then the players hit the floor with their green stretch bands.

Virginia Tech uses Nike basketballs, so the Irish have been using those all week in preparation.

After all the Patriot football controversy dominating the media, Notre Dame staffers note that basketballs say to inflate from seven to nine pounds. Wonder if the Atlantic Coast Conference officials will check? Just in case, it's comforting to know ACC men's basketball senior associate commissioner Paul Brazeau is in attendance in Blacksburg tonight.

6:23 p.m. - The assistant coaches watch as the Irish run their sets against no defense.

6:30 p.m. - Notre Dame is back in its smallish, brightly-lit locker room for a quick break. The assistants are vocal in their encouragement: "Let's compete," "Chance for another road W--let's earn it" and "Get it from the jump."

6:34 p.m. - Brey rolls in and quickly goes through the Virginia Tech lineup with last-minute tips.

"Make them work," he says. "We can win in the 50s or 60s, or we can ring up 90 if that works."

6:35 p.m. - With 24 minutes on the game clock the Irish head out for formal warm-ups. Before taking the floor, the team gathers in a big huddle in the hallway.

Ten minutes later, the Irish are back in the locker room, with Auguste the last to enter after knocking down a free throw. The players throw on their game jerseys. Says Connaughton, "Let's start by defending. We don't need them to get confident."

With nine minutes on the clock, an energized Brey enters the room. He notes two different Virginia Tech starters than anticipated.

Says Brey, "There's nothing like earning one together on the road."

Brey says a quick prayer, and the team hits the floor.

With 1:40 on the clock, Brey and Williams shake hands and chat for about a minute. 

The game begins and at 18:20 Auguste avoids a double team, pivots and finds himself with a lay-in. The Irish lead 2-0 and it only gets better from here.

Notre Dame plays unselfish on the offensive end and Grant and Connaughton both end up with threes in the first four and a half minutes for a 10-4 lead.

Grant misses a shot, but both Jackson and Auguste grab offensive rebounds and finally Auguste is fouled. Less than six minutes into the game Auguste already has eight points.

Williams already has doffed his sport coat. 

Tech misses a dunk attempt and the Irish go the other way for a Grant three-point play to make it 17-6.

The Irish maintain a double-digit lead most of the half and double the Hokies' rebound total. Virginia Tech simply can't hit enough of its shots to keep pace with the efficient visitors. To make it worse, the Irish post five blocked shots in the first 16 minutes, and Tech is shooting only .375 from the floor. 

A Colson rebound and resulting three-point play match Notre Dame's largest lead at 33-20. 

"Here we go, baby, here we go," shouts Brey. 

Vasturia gets a layup with seven seconds to go in the half, and the Irish go to the break with a 38-28 advantage.

Brey is jazzed as he stands in front of his team. "Way to finish, way to be on the board, Steve. They are putting their heads down and driving it. We can stay in front of them. When they miss, we have transition on `em."

It's a quick and decisive message--and then all the coaches leave and the locker room quiets as the players relax for a few moments. 

In the first 20 minutes the Irish hit six of their 13 three-point attempts and added nine assists. Virginia Tech has only two turnovers but is hitting only 40 percent of its shots.

With 8:30 on the halftime clock the coaches return. Says Brey, "Let's start the half like we started the game. Zach, you made great decisions on when to take the shot or kick it out. That's the most transition we've had since our non-league schedule. Let's start this half the same way.

"Twenty more minutes. Nothing easy in this league." And, with that, the players head back to the floor.

Brey watches the Irish shoot with his hands in his pockets, chatting briefly with Grant. In the last two minutes, the players shoot free throws one at a time.

Jackson connects for a three in the first 30 seconds and the second-half tone is set.

Vasturia earns his third foul at the 17:54 mark and Auguste is in the same boat by 16:18, but the Irish are not fazed.

Grant goes flying through the air and finds Connaughton for another three.

"That's poetry in motion," says Jones on the Notre Dame radio broadcast.

Grant makes a nifty steal and throws to Auguste for a layup and the Irish have scored eight straight and lead 55-34 at 14:52.

There's not much drama the rest of the way. Grant and Connaughton are as effective as ever, and Virginia Tech simply does not have enough firepower.

With seven minutes left, Brey is sitting on the bench, confident his group knows how to finish the job.

Says Jones on the radio, "These guys work hard, they like each other and it shows on the basketball court in the way they play."

At 4:34 Vasturia fouls out (with seven points and four assists), but the game already is won. The arena is emptying, and the biggest cheers in the final minutes come from a somewhat-frenzied Notre Dame bench for a three-pointer by Burgett, a dunk by Martinas Geben and a late free throw by Eric Katenda.

8:52 p.m. - The final of 85-60 is in the books as rookie Matt Farrell dribbles out the final seconds. Grant does a post-game television interview with Antonelli on the court, as the rest of his teammates wait in the locker room. It's Notre Dame's largest ACC margin of victory in two years in the league.

"That was big time," says Brey, after Grant returns. 

"Very business-like, really mature. I love how we stay in character. I hope that's a little tease for us. When we rebound and get out in transition . . .  

"Now, can we go to Raleigh and get to 4-0 on the road? Our road dogs are becoming men."

Brey says a prayer and heads out the door to tape his postgame radio interview with Jones. Then the Notre Dame head coach is off to the postgame interview room, and the noisy Irish locker room heats up from the showers.

Says Brey to the media: "I don't know if there is a better player than him (Grant) in the country for how he kind of stirs the drink for this team."

Grant hit six of his nine shots and Connaughton connected on six of eight and added 10 rebounds. Those two plus Jackson knocked down 10 of 15 from three-point distance. That's hard to beat.

9:12 p.m. - Connaughton, Auguste and Grant are the last players to dress. Grant does a brief interview in the hallway, and Connaughton heads to the stands for a visit with his parents.

9:17 p.m. - The Irish are back on their bus, munching on sandwiches from Firehouse Subs. As the team pulls away from Cassell Coliseum, the television on the bus shows the NBA Chicago Bulls-San Antonio Spurs game, but that's quickly switched to the Indiana-Maryland contest. 

Without saying anything to acknowledge it, both players and coaches are comforted by knowing that what the Irish expected to happen played out on the court. Notre Dame got off to a good start (in both halves), got early touches with Auguste, won the battle on the boards, played as unselfish as ever, shot it great from three and defended well enough to keep Virginia Tech from jump-starting anything. Beachem may have been frustrated at his uncharacteristic none-for-10 shooting night, but it ended up having no effect. Nineteen Irish assists to only six turnovers said it all. 

10:15 p.m. - The Notre Dame group arrives at the Roanoke-Blacksburg airport and within a half hour the travel party is airborne.

12:05 a.m. - The Irish land at Michiana Regional Airport and 30 minutes later the team bus pulls back into the Joyce Center's Gate 6.

12:37 p.m. - As usual, the players reconnoiter in their locker room for some final words from Brey. He sounds almost as excited as he was four hours earlier in the middle of the game.

"We handled our business tonight, and we got back at a reasonable time. We're gonna get to class tomorrow, watch some film, a little practice, have dinner at Parisi's tomorrow night and then at 11 on Saturday we head to Raleigh."

In no uncertain terms, Brey makes certain his players understand the opportunity ahead of them with their Sunday night assignment at North Carolina State, a loser tonight in a league game at Miami.

And, with that, Brey is out the door and within minutes the players grab their belongings and head into the night. 

Life, for now, is good. The Irish are 18-2 and 6-1 in ACC play. Notre Dame has never started better other than 19-1 in 1973-74.

In less than 72 hours, another challenge awaits.

 

###########

 

-- By John Heisler, Senior Associate Athletics Director

 

 

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