PITTSBURGH – Zach Auguste used some of the boxing moves he learned at Peter Welch’s Gym last summer in South Boston to help knock Northeastern out of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.
The Massachusetts native, a junior forward at Notre Dame, scored 25 points in the 69-65 win over the 14th-seeded Huskies, 1 off his career high. He opened the scoring for the third-seeded Irish on a pair of free throws, and closed it with two more. In between, he went 10 for 14 from the floor, mostly a collection of dunks and lay-ins that allowed Notre Dame to hold off the pesky Huskies and advance to a third-round game against Butler on Saturday at the Consol Energy Center.
Auguste and the Irish are expecting another tough fight from the in-state Bulldogs. Perhaps those boxing sessions will pay off once again.
“Agility, footwork, there’s a lot of mental focus in it,” Auguste said on Friday, explaining how he benefited from the time spent at the gym. “It helped me with my conditioning, as well. We’d work out in the gym, then hit the pads. It was conditioning and boxing.”
Auguste said he’d make two or three trips per week to the gym with Wayne Selden Jr. of Roxbury — who scored 6 points for Kansas on Friday in the Jayhawks’ win — and former Harvard player Kyle Casey. It was part of a busy Boston summer for Auguste, who was born in Cambridge, moved to Framingham, and settled in Marlborough. That’s where he played his high school ball for the first three years, before transferring to the New Hampton School in New Hampshire. But he still considers Boston home, and remains a passionate fan of the local professional sports teams.
There were also local workouts last summer with Selden, Casey, and Boston College guard Olivier Hanlan, plus pick-up games with an assortment of players who play for area college teams. Included in that group was Scott Eatherton, the Northeastern senior who went against Auguste for much of Thursday’s game, scoring 18 points.
“We played pick-up over the summer a bunch of times, I was pretty confident going in. I knew a lot about his game, and I suppose he knew a lot about mine. We just wanted to go head-to-head,” Auguste said.
It was arguably Auguste’s best game of the season, and came at the most crucial time. It gave the Irish their first NCAA Tournament win since 2011. Another on Saturday would send them to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 12 years.
Notre Dame has go-to seniors in Jerian Grant and Arlington native Pat Connaughton. But the Irish might not be 30-5 — or the ACC champions, or ranked eighth in the country, or be a No. 3 seed — if not for the 6-foot-10-inch, 240-pound Auguste. He’s increased his scoring from 6.7 points per game last season to 12.8, and is shooting a career-best 61.2 percent from the floor.
“I felt there was no way we would get to this point without him being a key guy,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. “He’s even exceeded where I thought he would be, so I’m really pleased with him. And really pleased that he’ll come back next year as a main guy.”
Auguste’s playing time was limited his first two seasons as he sat behind established big men such as Jack Cooley and Garrick Sherman. Now he’s sharing the frontcourt with yet another Massachusetts product, Bonzie Colson of New Bedford. Colson, a freshman averaging 5.8 points per game, wasn’t surprised with his teammate’s performance against Northeastern. He sees it often in practice.
“When he’s in that rhythm, scoring like that, defending like that, blocking shots, making tough plays, it’s tough to not give him the ball,” Colson said. “He’s been patient, he’s made big plays when we’ve needed them most. [Thursday] he showed that, making big free throws when we needed them.”
Auguste started the season on a tear, scoring in double figures in each of Notre Dame’s first six games. He had a career-high 26 points against Florida State, but ACC play produced uneven individual results: He had 4 points against Virginia, and was held scoreless at Duke. The Irish lost both games.
On Thursday, he looked like the player who scorched the Seminoles, and continued a solid run of recent play: Auguste is averaging 15.8 points over his past five games, which includes the ACC tournament, won by Notre Dame.
‘It helped me with my conditioning, as well. We’d work out in the gym, then hit the pads. It was conditioning and boxing.’Zach Auguste, Notre Dame forward, on his offseason training at a South Boston boxing gym
“I thought that was a real coming-out party for him at our place right before Christmas,” Brey said, referencing the Florida State game. “And then like any player, a little bit up and down through the ACC season. But starting in Greensboro and through [Thursday], I just think he’s playing at such a high level, he’s very confident, and his teammates, boy, they find him. He’s a big, big target when we ball screen and have him roll.”
Another key element to Auguste’s improved play this season, Brey said, has been his ability to control his emotions better. That comes, as it often does, with college kids maturing. But to illustrate how far Auguste has come, Brey recalled one specific moment in practice last season, when Auguste perhaps gave a preview of the boxing skills that would eventually benefit him as a basketball player.
“He was a guy who could really swing emotionally, even in a practice,” Brey said. “He punched the [basket support] in a practice his sophomore year because he was mad and he broke his hand. That was kind of Zach back in his younger days.
“He’s controlled that better. He’s been able to recover from mistakes better.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.