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Atkins, Notre Dame continue to dig deep

February 17, 2014 Columns No Comments

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Eric Atkins and Notre Dame have had to dig deep this season. They have had some real adversity come their way, and haven’t handled it very well on the bottom line. With a stretch of three straight road games having just started, though, the Fighting Irish just might be getting to a point where wins won’t be so hard to come by.

“We’ve got a tough stretch here,” Atkins said after Notre Dame’s 73-69 win at Boston College on Sunday night. “It’s going to be tough, but I think things are coming together a little bit for us. I think everyone has really fallen into their roles, and everyone is stepping up.”

Notre Dame had the look of a sleeper in the ACC heading into the season. The turning point came on a tough night in December just before Christmas, when the Fighting Irish gave a game away to Ohio State in the final minute at Madison Square Garden. This was a game they seemingly had all sealed up, but the Buckeyes stole it from them. It was the kind of loss that could set a team back for the season. But it wasn’t even their worst loss of the weekend. The team had barely made it back to South Bend when guard Jerian Grant announced he was withdrawing from the university due to an academic matter.

At first, it was a case of “no Grant, no problem,” as the Irish beat Canisius in a wild overtime game and then Duke in their first-ever ACC game. Atkins won ACC Player of the Week honors the next two weeks with big games. It was the beginning of what has been quite a stretch for the senior point guard, although the team has struggled since then, as they lost six of the next seven and eight of ten. Since Grant’s departure, Notre Dame is 6-8, including a 5-8 mark in ACC play. The workload on Atkins has increased, as has that of pretty much everyone else on the perimeter. Freshmen Steve Vasturia and Demetrius Jackson have been thrust into expanded roles sooner than the coaching staff probably wanted.

Atkins has played all but 20 of 580 available minutes in the 14 games since Grant departed. Sunday night was the seventh game in that stretch where he never sat down, and in another he sat for just a few seconds. He hasn’t shot the ball quite as well in Grant’s absence, but in all his numbers aren’t off much and his scoring is up.

That’s not bad for a guy whose didn’t just lose the best player he had alongside him. He didn’t just lose the guy he was looking forward to playing another year with. Grant was also his roommate and his best friend on the team. They had an undeniable chemistry on the court that was indicative of the chemistry off the court.

“This year as a leader is harder than any other year,” said head coach Mike Brey. “He has been thrown a heck of a thing to lead through, and he’s done it with great poise.”

Atkins gave Brey a lot of credit for helping him through it. Brey has let him run the show to make others better and come up with ways to get Atkins good opportunities. The offense has had to adjust, as Brey said they want to run even on made baskets but have gone with more of a grinding team in the halfcourt. They don’t have a Luke Harangody or Jack Cooley up front, so they have largely used their big men primarily as screeners to get good looks for the likes of Pat Connaughton, who had a big game in front of a number of hometown fans with 17 points and four assists on Sunday night, Vasturia and Jackson (who missed his second straight game on Sunday but should return soon).

Notre Dame has seemingly turned a corner offensively with a couple of very efficient games at that end of late. On Sunday, they shot just under 51 percent and had 14 assists and seven turnovers. That comes on the heels of a double overtime win over Clemson in which they had 16 assists and 12 turnovers while winning in large part because of good defense. Now the key is to continue that, which has been a challenge at times.

“I thought overall our offensive efficiency was good, and we’ve had two games in a row where we understand how to play on the offensive end a little better,” said Brey.

The Fighting Irish also seem to be better at pulling out close games. Six of their nine non-conference wins were by double digits, but three of their four losses were by five points or less. That continued in conference play, as only two of the eight losses were by double digits. Their demons from the Ohio State game almost resurfaced again on Sunday, as missed free throws late allowed Boston College to get within three in the final seconds. They had enough in the end to hang on, as BC never got a possession with a chance to tie it, and they hope they can ride that to pulling out more down the stretch.

“Lately, we’ve been pretty good,” said Brey. “We may be a little more confident because we’ve had a couple go our way.”

Notre Dame could use some carryover from Sunday night since they are on the road for two more games before coming back home. They head to Miami, then Virginia, with the hope of gathering momentum for a more favorable postseason. At this point an NCAA Tournament bid almost certainly coming only by way of the conference’s automatic bid, but they can certainly go for an NIT bid as well. They have plenty to play for.

The Fighting Irish dug deep on Sunday to get their first road win of the season. Atkins and his teammates, including the much-improved guards that have been thrust into bigger roles, now need to keep doing that the way they have all season.

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