O'Malley's Key Three

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- They're hot, they're cold, they buckle in the face of a zone. But Notre Dame will play Duke Friday in the ACC semi-finals.

For 20 minutes, Notre Dame, and specifically senior Pat Connaughton couldn't miss. The Irish drilled 15 of 24 first half field goal attempts including 8 of 13 from long range; the captain 5 for 5, four of them from downtown. The end result of the 20-minute Irish blitzkrieg was a 43-25 halftime lead.

And then they were forced to play out the string, or so it seemed.

Notre Dame missed 10 field goal attempts before it made its first basket of the second-half with 8:04 remaining in the contest, a span in which Miami reeled off a 22-4 run to tie the contest at 47. They committed six turnovers before that initial second-half field goal as well.

Six of the 10 misses were from three-point range, four of them by the previously unconscious Connaughton.

"I think the most important thing for us is to stay in attack mode," said Connaughton. "Demetrius made a great point that we missed a few open shots and we got a little passive against the zone. When you play against a team as athletic as Miami, you're going to have some turnovers. The goal is to limit those and we've just got to stay in attack mode because we could see some zone tomorrow night against Duke."

Miami's zone (discussed below) resulted in a 1 for 9 shooting performance by the Irish from long range; just 6 of 19 overall in the second stanza. Notre Dame still managed to shoot better than 48 percent for the contest (21 of 43) and almost 41 percent from beyond the arc (9 of 22).

"I'm really proud of our group," said Irish head coach Mike Brey. "We really struggled against their zone and we couldn't get much rhythm after playing beautifully in the first half against their man-to-man.

"We won it tonight with our defense; our D had to win it for us."

Defense won't be enough tomorrow night against the red hot Blue Devils. The Irish will need more than 80 points to pull off the upset in Greensboro.

A matchup vs. Syracuse in South Bend 16 days prior provided the portent:

Notre Dame, the nation's most efficient offensive team and a group replete with three-point marksman, couldn't dent Syracuse's 2-3 zone. The Irish attack sputtered due in part to paralysis by analysis.

That reality reared its ugly head last night in Greensboro.

"I didn’t think they were ever going to miss," said Miami head coach Jim Larranaga of Notre Dame's first half performance. "They found the open man and really shot it well. We ended up playing zone for the last 25 or so minutes of the game, and we haven’t zoned, I think, since Kennedy was president. We just, we haven’t zoned, and we made the adjustment."

It almost became Brey's Bay of Pigs.

"You don’t want to over-coach it either because then you may paralyze your guys," said Brey of the obvious struggles. "I thought D (Demetrius Jackson) and Jerian (Grant) did a better job at key times driving gaps. We ball-screened the zone a little bit more, and we treated it a little bit more like a man to man situation.

"Now to open the second half, we had some great looks from three, and we didn’t miss a shot in the first half. You make a couple of those and it loosens up the whole atmosphere. We miss a couple and now the thing changes and you’re in a dog fight."

Grant offered post-game that the Miami zone, an active 2-3 that forced eight of Notre Dame's nine second-half turnovers, was something the Irish hadn't seen before. Brey noted that it might have been the personnel that made the tactic successful.

"I think it's the bodies that are in the zone," he said. "When they’re long and their open stance bothers you, it’s hard. They have some length, and then they have the shot blocker (seven-foot center Tonye Jekiri) at the rim…They’re in passing lanes. It’s tricky. It was tricky to play against."

For the first time in more than two decades, Duke features zone looks as part of its defensive approach.

Jackson set the tone, Connaughton provided what turned out to be a much-needed cushion with a barrage of early three-pointers, and Grant closed out the contest at the free throw line, but it was again the rotation's glue guy, sophomore Steve Vasturia, that came up with winning basketball plays when the Irish needed it most.

"Steve Vasturia was on an IV this afternoon. He was sick as a dog," Brey offered post-game. "To do what he did, make big shots and make big plays and guarded (Sheldon) McClellan most of the night, fabulous."

McClellan connected on just four of 11 field goal attempts; 0-5 from long range.

"''I think we got a little impatient on the offensive end, we kind of turned the ball over and took some bad shots,'' said Vasturia. ''That cost us, but all year we've been doing a good job of taking punches and being poised, and at the end of the day we did a good job of that.''

Vasturia led all scorers with 16 points but it was a pair of late buckets and a key steal that helped the Irish hold off the Hurricanes in the end. Seventeen seconds after Miami took its first lead of the contest, Vasturia reclaimed the edge for the Irish, drilling a corner three-ball for a 52-51 advantage.

When Miami cut Notre Dame's seven-point lead to three thanks to free throws and a turnover/layup in an 11-second span, it was Vasturia who snuck behind the Hurricanes defense for an easy breakaway layup.

Four seconds and a 94-foot sprint later, Vasturia stole a Miami pass and the Irish put the game away from the charity stripe.

"He does so much for our team," said Jackson of Vasturia this week. "His cuts, cutting well without the ball has got everyone else going on that same page. He knocks down huge shots. Plays at a great pace, does everything right and most of the time he defends the best player on every team."

The Irish will need that and more from Vasturia and his fellow rotation members to advance past Friday night and into the first conference championship game in program history.

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