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Friday, April 19, 2024
The Observer

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Red-hot Irish gear up for Senior Day matchup with Clemson

On Tuesday night, Notre Dame men’s basketball secured what was arguably the team’s biggest win of the season to date, a 70-65 nail-biter at home against Wake Forest. The Irish will have the chance to follow up that win with an even bigger one — and earn their fifth ACC victory in their last six games — when they take the court at Purcell Pavilion for the final time this year to face Clemson on Saturday night.

Just three weeks ago, the Irish season appeared to be in a free fall. Notre Dame was just 2-10 in conference play and had lost seven consecutive games, a stretch that culminated in a blowout defeat on the road against Duke.

But the Irish have emphatically turned things around in the time since, as the continued improvements that the young team has made in its first year under head coach Micah Shrewsberry have begun to translate to the scoreboard.

Notre Dame earned home wins against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech before making it three in a row with a 22-point victory against Louisville on the road. Last Saturday, their win streak was snapped at the hands of Syracuse, but the Irish still managed to put their impressive resilience on display by coming back from a 29-point deficit to ultimately fall by just three. And after Tuesday’s win, they sit at a far more respectable 6-11 in the ACC — already doubling last season’s conference win total — and seem to have hit their stride heading into a Senior Day game against Clemson.

That late-season surge has been sparked in large part by the dynamic play of the Irish’s talented freshman backcourt duo. Markus Burton has been Notre Dame’s go-to guy offensively ever since he broke a program record by scoring 29 points in his career debut, but he’s taken his game to another level on both ends of the court as of late. After averaging nearly 17 points, seven assists and six steals against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, the freshman guard earned ACC Rookie of the Week honors last week following a 16-point, three-steal effort against Louisville and a 28-point, eight-assist outing that nearly willed the Irish to a win against Syracuse.

And after posting what was likely the best performance of his young career against Wake Forest, he’s likely to secure Rookie of the Week accolades for the fourth time, which would establish a new Notre Dame record. Burton was aggressive right from the jump against the Demon Deacons, scoring 19 points before halftime to keep the Irish within striking distance. He would finish the night with a career-high 31 points, four steals and three assists. His 11-11 performance from the free throw line helped Notre Dame seal the win down the stretch.

While Burton has deservedly garnered most of the headlines for the Irish, the emergence of freshman guard Braeden Shrewsberry as a key part of the starting lineup has helped unlock what had been a struggling Notre Dame offense. Against Louisville and Syracuse, the sharpshooting Shrewsberry was a combined 13-20 from beyond the three-point arc en route to 41 total points. And while he struggled to find the mark against Wake Forest amid a 3-13 shooting night, he remained confident and calmly drilled the biggest shot of the game —a three-pointer that put Notre Dame ahead by four with just over a minute remaining.

Both freshmen will need to be at their best for the Irish to compete with a strong Clemson team that is currently riding a three-game winning streak. The Tigers (20-8, 10-7 ACC) sit at fourth place in the conference and are currently projected by ESPN to be a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Clemson boasts a pair of high-level interior players — PJ Hall (19 points and seven rebounds per game) and Ian Schieffelin (10 points, nine rebounds) – who will put pressure on Irish sophomore forwards Kebba Njie and Tae Davis and freshman forward Carey Booth throughout the night.

The Tigers have also gotten a significant scoring boost from Syracuse transfer Joseph Girard III, who has racked up at least 13 points in each of Clemson’s last 10 games. Saturday will be a battle of teams with contrasting styles, as Clemson’s offense, ranked fourth in the ACC, will aim to push the pace and break through the Irish’s stingy second-ranked defense.

The matchup against Clemson will be Notre Dame’s last at home before the Irish hit the road to close out their regular season against North Carolina and Virginia Tech next week. Notre Dame has been at its best when defending Purcell Pavilion — the Irish are 8-8 at home compared to just 2-8 on the road. And while the team is extremely underclassmen-heavy following the departure of most of last year’s veteran-laden squad, Notre Dame will recognize a trio of seniors on Senior Day.

Matt Zona arrived at Notre Dame from Blauvelt, New York, in 2020. After seeing minimal playing time in his first two seasons in South Bend, the forward has carved out a key role over the last two years. He finished his junior year strong by scoring 19 points and sinking five three-pointers across the Irish’s final two games and has parlayed those performances into a career-best season as a senior. He’s started six games while appearing in all 28 and has set per game career highs in minutes (11.0), points (2.1) and rebounds (2.4). He hauled in a season-best six rebounds in just 13 minutes on Tuesday against Wake Forest and ranks sixth on the team with 10 three-pointers.

Tony Sanders Jr. is the Irish’s other four-year player. The guard from Miami, Florida, earned his first career start as a freshman in a road win against his hometown Hurricanes. After battling through injuries as a junior, he opted to remain at Notre Dame despite the departure of former head coach Mike Brey and has connected on three-pointers in wins against Maryland Eastern Shore and Virginia this year.

Raheem Braiton is one of five walk-ons that joined the Irish team this season. The guard and South Bend native achieved his dream of playing for Notre Dame after serving as a team manager for the previous two seasons. Braiton has made five appearances for the Irish this year and has recorded two assists and two rebounds.

Notre Dame will look to honor its seniors with a win while also picking up a crucial ACC victory. A win would mark the team's third against teams currently in ESPN’s projected NCAA Tournament field (Virginia and Wake Forest).

It remains to be seen whether the Irish will be at full strength on Saturday, as junior guard J.R. Konieczny missed his first game of the season on Tuesday with right foot soreness. Konieczny’s status for Saturday is to be determined, but having their third-leading scorer and rebounder back in action would be a major boost for the Irish as they set their sights on another upset victory.

Notre Dame will host Clemson at Purcell Pavilion on Saturday night at 7:45 p.m. The Senior Day matchup will be televised on The CW Network.

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