SOUTH BEND — In the wake of losing his team’s top scorer, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey expected senior point guard Eric Atkins to take on a larger role in the offense.
Atkins did that and more Sunday, Dec. 29. Atkins scored a career-best 30 points to lead the Irish to an 87-81 overtime win over Canisius.
It has been a rough week for the Irish (9-4), who blew an 8-point lead late in a loss to No. 3 Ohio State, then lost senior Jerian Grant to an academic violation, and sophomore reserve Cameron Biedscheid to transfer.
In Notre Dame’s final non-conference game before its ACC debut Saturday against No. 9 Duke, Atkins helped make up Grant’s missing 19 points per game by shooting 10 of 14 from the field, including 6 of 8 from 3-point range.
“I think it’s very fitting that Eric Atkins, given the week that we’ve had, would just say, ‘I got your back, I’m going to carry us,’” Brey said. “He’s had nights like that when we’ve needed it, but now we really need it.”
Garrick Sherman converted a three-point play and an offensive putback late in overtime, and Atkins drilled his career-best sixth 3-pointer with 12 seconds to play to seal the Irish win.
“I was just looking to make a play,” Atkins said. “I’m not somebody who shows too much emotion. But I got a little hyped after that 3. It felt good to go in.”
Sherman finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Billy Baron matched his career high with 33 points to lead Canisius (8-5).
Baron’s three-point play with 1:02 left tied the game at 73. In the final minutes, Baron appeared to grab a loose ball with the shot clock winding down on Notre Dame, but stepped out of bounds, giving the ball back to the Irish with 28 seconds left and no shot clock. Baron insisted he called for a timeout, as did his father and head coach, Jim Baron.
“I wish they would have gone to the video tape, just to clarify what really happened,” said Jim Baron, who served as an assistant coach at Notre Dame under Digger Phelps from 1981-87. “That was the game-changer, right there.”
The Irish failed to get a final shot off, sending the game into overtime.
Early in the second half, Baron drilled a deep 3-pointer at 16:44 and another one with a hand in his face four minutes later that put the Golden Griffins up by four.
Notre Dame responded with 3-pointers by Atkins and V.J. Beachem to keep it close, and Steve Vasturia’s 3 gave the Irish their first lead of the second half, 56-54 with 11:32 to go.
Canisius just kept feeding the ball to Baron, who scored 12 straight Canisius points during a 7 minute stretch in the second half until Jordan Heath knocked down a 3-pointer with 6:37 to play.
“With that kid Baron, he put a little doubt in us,” Atkins said. “He was hitting really big-time shots. I think it was a good effort from this group to be resilient.”
Atkins answered Baron, nearly shot for shot. The senior point guard drilled a pair of 3-pointers down the stretch, the second of which put Notre Dame back up by two with 4:28 to play in regulation.
“This is probably the hottest I’ve been in a long time,” Atkins said. “I’ve been in the gym all week with the coaches and they’ve been getting me ready to shoot the ball more. It showed tonight.”
Notre Dame started off cold, shooting 2 of 14 from the field to find itself down nine points early on as all nine scholarship players cycled through different combinations on the floor.
The Irish gradually got back into the game, and took their only lead of the first half on a Pat Connaughton pull-up jumper with 3:19 left before intermission.
Canisius answered with six straight and took a two-point lead into halftime. Chris Manhertz had eight points and seven rebounds at the break and finished with 12 points and 11 boards before fouling out.
Grant announced on Notre Dame’s athletic website last Sunday that he was no longer enrolled in school due to an academic violation. A few days later, Biedscheid, who was sitting out this season to preserve a year of eligibility while he focused on his academics and improving his strength, was given his release from the University to seek a transfer.
“We knew we needed to get one today, especially with everything that was going around,” Sherman said. “It was just good to come away with a win, have new guys step up and get some confidence.”