INTERMISSION = ADVANTAGE IRISH
Though a hot-shooting start to the second stanza will draw headlines, it was Notre Dame's determined, focused effort at the conclusion of the first half that helped turn the tide Tuesday night.
The game's initial 16 minutes were marred by myriad missed shots, the Irish hitting just seven of their first 25 field goal attempts (and 1 of 10). Trailing 33-32 with 3:49 remaining, Notre Dame rallied to hit each of its last five field goals to close the half -- including three from long range -- to take a 43-41 lead into the break.
Not surprisingly, 5th-year senior guard Jerian Grant assisted on two and scored on two others of the five buckets, culminating with a driving layup near the half-time gun.
"That's something we work on every day in practice. We have a segment where we do end-of-half, end-of-game situations," said Grant. "We're definitely poised and confident in those situations.
"We talked to each other at halftime. We're getting the looks we wanted, eventually we said we were going to knock them down."
Tuesday's end-half efforts weren't the first that played a crucial role in a league victory for head coach Mike Brey's squad this season.
-- Feb. 10 at Clemson: Grant nails a three-point shot (from Pat Connaughton) at the buzzer to cut the Tigers lead to two heading into the break.
-- Jan. 25 at NC State: Connaughton produces a tip-in goal as the buzzer sounds to trim North Carolina State's lead (once 18) to 12 at the half en route to a comeback overtime win in Raleigh.
-- Jan. 17 vs. Miami: Steve Vasturia hits a driving layup with 18 seconds left to cut the Hurricanes lead to 30-29 after at one point trailing by eight. Miami had hammered Duke, in Durham, by 16 in its previous contest.
-- Jan. 14 at Ga. Tech: Trailing 38-30 at the break and without the services of starting big man Zach Auguste, Notre Dame scores 14 of the first 18 points of the second half to take a 44-43 lead before five minutes of the second stanza had elapsed.
The halftime carryover trend continued Tuesday as the Irish added to their aforementioned strong first half finish with an eight-point run to begin the second. A 21-7 run rounded out the rally and the host's lead inflated from two at the break to an insurmountable 17.
The value of end-half possessions and early second-half focus cannot be overstated in sure-to-be-contested conference matchups.
BACK ON TRACK
Grant's the straw that stirs Notre Dame's potent drink, but a facilitator is only as good as his finishers, and Tuesday night, sophomores V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia found the range, both benefitting from Grant's ability to wheel and deal.
"It was good to see him get back in a rhythm tonight," said Brey of Beachem who finished with 10 points, 3 boards, and 2 steals in 19 minutes. "That's one of the things we really attacked. We watched some film with him the other day. He had a little bit of swagger up until the last week and we wanted to get that back. I thought tonight he got back part of it. We need him coming in off the bench."
Beachem hadn't hit for double digits since scoring 11 (with four boards) in a Jan. 25 overtime win at North Carolina State, the conclusion of a stretch in which he produced between nine and 13 points in four out of five outings, playing at least 20 minutes.
Over the next five games prior to Tuesday, Beachem had hit for a total of 24 points (including a goose egg at Clemson his last time out) while never topping the 20 minutes played.
Not in a prolonged slump but in need of an offensive rhythm against the Demon Deacons was Vasturia, who finished 4 for 8 from long range (he had been 4 for 12 in previous two outings from beyond the arc). According to Brey, it was Vasturia's defense that again made a major difference, paving the way to 37 minutes of floor time.
"I think one of the things that was lost was Steve Vasturia was fabulous tonight, because (Cody) Miller-McIntyre is really hard to keep out of the lane and guard, and he kept his chest on him the whole night, and then (Vasturia) made big shots for us all night," said Brey. (Miller-McIntyre finished 3 for 8 from the field with 10 points.)
A closer look at the sophomore pair's performance shows that five of the combined six three-point shots Vasturia and Beachem made were courtesy Grant passes. A sixth went from Grant, to Connaughton, to Vasturia in rapid succession.
"He's always had the instinct of finding the open guy," said Brey of Grant. "He really prides himself at looking how a defense plays, and making the right play. And he can make passes when he's in the air, turning backwards, with two guys draped on him, and he still delivers it to that shooting pocket for guys."
Grant's offensive greatness is unlikely to be denied through season's end -- complimentary players such as Vasturia, Beachem, and previously struggling Zach Auguste (back on track with 12 points including 8 for 9 from the free throw line in 14 foul-plagued minutes last night) -- will prove crucial to Notre Dame's post-season tournament appearances.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT…
Notre Dame is 23-4.
It's relevant to point out the team's remarkable record -- it's best mark after 27 games since 1974 -- because Notre Dame fans apparently attend men's basketball games disguised as empty seats, at least if the announced and laughable attendance number (8,421 last night) is to be taken remotely seriously.
(Incidentally, if that total includes all inhabitants still inside campus dorms, it's plausible.)
A disparate number of those that happen to make the trek to watch the nation's 10th-ranked team respond in a manner commensurate with a church service rather than a fan base watching one of the most exciting teams in the nation.
"I thought our crowd helped us," said Brey of the early second-half run that blew the contest open. "Now I had to get up and do a few cartwheels to get 'em going. I made a mental note, the ones that weren't standing, when I see them at Martin's (a local grocery franchise), I will confront them," he joked.
A second-half public address announcement noted that tickets remain available for Notre Dame's Feb. 24 date with Syracuse.
S-Y-R-A-C-U-S-E. A Hall of Fame coach. One of the nation's 10 best and most storied programs. The Orange are among a small handful of schools that have traditionally bested Notre Dame in South Bend.
And tickets are available for the Syracuse game.
The Irish can shoot it as well as anyone, and for the first time in several seasons (a decade?) they dunk it, too. They pass better than any amateur team in the nation, they're a national and conference contender, they have two home-grown products in their rotation, they have the nation's best offensive player, and they have a four-year, two-sport star, Pat Connaughton, as the lone captain -- the ideal representative of the university.
Tickets are available for the Syracuse game. (They were four days prior to a January matchup with undefeated, No. 3 Virginia as well.)
Is it ticket prices? ($20-$25 available for the Syracuse game). Is it wariness to invest in a team that traditionally flames out during the NCAA Tournament?
The Field of 68 is the best sporting event in the nation, and it's admittedly murdered the impact and importance of college basketball's regular season. But Notre Dame's bounce-back efforts this winter -- they had a losing record last year, lest you forget -- ranks among the top stories of the college basketball season.
A tournament run is long overdue, no reasonable analyst, fan, or Notre Dame coach can (and better not) disagree. But if Homer was right, and the journey is it's own reward, Irish fans are missing out on a great one.