Pitt brings out the best in Notre Dame

| Friday, Feb. 28, 2014, 10:49 p.m.

When Notre Dame senior Eric Atkins thinks about his recent success against Pitt, it takes his mind off the Irish's struggles adjusting to life in the ACC.

Atkins is 3-0 against the Panthers (21-7, 9-6) entering the 2 p.m. game Saturday at Purcell Pavilion. Notre Dame is 6-10 in the ACC (15-14 overall) following a 65-62 home victory against Georgia Tech on Wednesday, ending a two-game losing streak.

It has been a season of peaks and valleys for Notre Dame, which lost leading scorer Jerian Grant after 12 games because of grades. Notre Dame hasn't won more than three consecutive games all season.

“It's been tough for us.,” Atkins said Thursday after practice.

Atkins, though, takes solace in Notre Dame's ability to match up against Pitt when both teams were members of the Big East.

Last year, Notre Dame defeated the Panthers, 51-42, at Petersen Events Center. In Atkins' sophomore season, Notre Dame defeated the Panthers, 72-59, in South Bend, Ind. As a freshman, Atkins and Notre Dame won 56-51 at Pitt.

“Whenever we play against Pittsburgh, it's one of our biggest games of the season,” said Atkins, who leads Notre Dame in assists and steals. “I don't think it's going to be any different, another tough game on Saturday.”

Asked about Notre Dame's success against the Panthers — Pitt hasn't beaten Notre Dame since January 2009 and hasn't won in South Bend since March 2005 — Atkins credits coach Mike Brey's game plan.

Last season, Notre Dame limited the Panthers to 34 percent shooting and won the rebounding battle, 40-25. No Pitt player scored more than 11 points.

“We do a good job of scouting them and trying to take away their easy looks for their better players,” said Atkins, who contributed 10 points and seven assists in last year's victory. “Also, limiting them on the backboards because they usually beat up teams offensive rebounding.”

When Notre Dame is playing well, Atkins and his teammates control the pace and funnel the ball inside to 6-foot-11 senior Garrick Sherman, who averages 13.6 points and 7.4 rebounds and scored a game-high 21 points on 10-of-15 shooting against Georgia Tech.

“We've been doing things different, changing lineups. We're trying to find what works,” said Atkins, who plays his final regular-season home game on Saturday. “We did a good job moving the ball against Georgia Tech, getting the ball to Sherman and getting good looks. From there, we can play inside out.

“Getting the win against Georgia Tech was the start for a big finish for us. We're looking forward to playing Pitt. We play North Carolina on Monday, but our focus right now is only on Pitt.”

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jharris@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JHarris_Trib

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