FORT WAYNE – The Notre Dame men’s basketball team made the best first impression it could when the Irish opened Atlantic Coast Conference play.
The Irish overcame a 10-point deficit to upset then-No. 7 Duke 79-77 at home Saturday. Notre Dame’s first ACC win was against one of the conference’s powerhouses and sent the Blue Devils (11-3, 0-1) down to No. 16 in the Associated Press Top 25, the first time they have been out of the top 10 since December 2007.
But as good as the start in their new league was, coach Mike Brey knows that feeling can go away if the Irish (10-4, 1-0) aren’t ready for tonight’s home game against North Carolina State (10-4, 0-1).
No matter what happened Saturday, I reminded our fans and our team that we still have 17 league games to play, Brey said Monday during the ACC coaches’ teleconference. For us to get back and to get focused with North Carolina State, and I think we were really mature about that because we have a good crop of leadership, older guys that got us back into preparation for the next challenge.
Tonight’s game is expected to be played, despite the snow that was dumped on Indiana on Sunday. North Carolina State was expected to arrive in South Bend on Monday night.
Right now, all systems go, Brey said Monday afternoon. We’re not going to be able to practice until after 6 p.m. We pushed everything back, which isn’t that big of a deal because we don’t play until 9. I sense we are in pretty good shape for all things to happen. I think we are all systems go for tomorrow night.
If the game is played tonight, the Irish will need senior guard Eric Atkins to continue his strong performance that has helped the team regroup after experiencing heartbreak just weeks before the start of conference play.
Notre Dame let an eight-point lead slip away in the final 50 seconds in a 64-61 loss to No. 3 Ohio State on Dec. 21 in Madison Square Garden, and then the team lost leading scorer Jerian Grant to an academic issue for the rest of the season.
Eric Atkins has been flat-out fabulous, Brey said. I remember one of our discussions in the locker room in the Garden before we broke for Christmas. He said, Coach, we’re going to be all right.’ I’ll tell you what, coach needed to hear that right then that night. He’s delivered on setting the tone.
Atkins has also delivered on the court. He scored a career-high 30 points in the Irish’s 87-81 overtime win over Canisius on Dec. 29 and followed that with a team-high 19 points against Duke.
Atkins, who averages 13.6 points and 4.9 assists, was named the ACC’s player of the week for the last two weeks.
I’ve always liked (Atkins) as a player, N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. With Grant out of the lineup, he’s obviously felt the need to be more aggressive, look for his shot more, use the ball-screen more to get to the rim. He’s just so much more involved right now in these last two games. He’s playing with great confidence and he’s playing with great aggressiveness. It’s added a dimension to his game.
Note: Irish freshman guard Steve Vasturia was named the ACC rookie of the week. He made three 3-pointers for nine points and had four rebounds against Duke.