SOUTH BEND, Ind.— When Darion Atkins was being recruited, he took a visit to Notre Dame and enjoyed it so much he nearly committed. But the forward’s visit to Virginia was just a little more pleasant, and he ultimately chose the Cavaliers over the Fighting Irish.
Atkins again enjoyed his trip to Purcell Pavilion on Saturday night. Third-ranked Virginia’s stifling defense successfully disrupted No. 13 Notre Dame’s prolific offense. Yet the Cavaliers found themselves trailing and in need of an offensive boost. Known for his consistent defensive presence, Atkins provided an offensive spark, scoring a team-high 14 points in a 62-56 win.
“Just like this program prides itself on having a chip on its shoulder, I think Darion has a chip on his shoulder and wants to be a threat on the offensive end just like everybody else,” junior Malcolm Brogdon said.
Notre Dame entered the game as the nation’s best shooting team at 54.8 percent, and though the Cavaliers (15-0, 3-0 ACC) beat the Irish (15-2, 3-1) by at least 15 points in both meetings last season, Notre Dame was considered a trendy upset pick.
Virginia’s defense rose to the challenge. The Cavaliers held the Irish to 33.9 percent shooting and their season low in points, 29 below their average. Notre Dame’s leading scorer, DeMatha product Jerian Grant, was held to six points with Brogdon guarding him most of the game. But in a game that saw 10 lead changes, the Cavaliers didn’t take control until the final four minutes because of a disjointed offensive effort.
“It was like we were stuck in mud,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “. . . Part of our strategy against a team like this is they’ve got to work defensively and hopefully they’re not quite as sharp offensively.”
Atkins, making his second straight start, accounted for six of the Cavaliers’ first 12 points. When he hit back-to-back jumpers in the first five minutes, he and his teammates could sense it would be his night. When Notre Dame jumped out to an eight-point lead early in the second half, a layup from Atkins made it a two-possession game again. Then with seven minutes left, his jumper tied it at 45.
Atkins’s points total was a season high, and he also finished with a team-high eight rebounds.
“I don’t know what it was,” said Atkins, who averaged 6.5 points per game coming in. “I was just more comfortable. I was confident. The pace of the game was steady. Maybe it was the atmosphere. I was just on tonight.”
The rest of the offense wasn’t on for long stretches. After getting out to a 16-6 lead, the Cavaliers trailed at halftime, 27-24, and seven straight points from Irish senior Pat Connaughton extended Notre Dame’s lead to eight in the first three minutes of the second half.
Virginia went on to shoot 57.7 percent in the second half, and after Atkins’s jumper tied the game at 45, the Cavaliers took control on a three-pointer from Justin Anderson that lifted Virginia ahead for good. A layup from Brogdon extended the lead to five, and the Cavaliers made their free throws down the stretch to secure the win.
“It was tough for us in the first half,” Brogdon said. “At halftime, we talked about slowing down. We felt like they were running our offense better than we were.”
Brogdon said Atkins was ultimately the “x-factor.” After the game, Atkins (Landon) reunited with Grant, a good friend. Grant teased Atkins, prying about how this offensive game and jump shot had suddenly developed. Atkins just picked the right time to flash it.
“I was like, ‘Man, I’ve had that stuff, you just ain’t seen it yet,’ ” Atkins said. “It was all good.”
Box score: Virginia 62, Notre Dame 56