TIm Prister on Notre Dame's defense
PITTSBURGH -- Pound the ball in the paint. Shoot it from point-blank range. Score the basketball seemingly time after time after time.
Throughout much of Notre Dame’s 67-64 victory over Butler to advance the program to the Sweet 16 in Cleveland for the first time in 12 seasons, it appeared as if the Bulldogs were making about three-quarters of their attempts from the field, especially considering from where those shots were coming.
Jerome Bettis was in the CONSOL Energy Center stands Saturday night, but sometimes, it looked like he was in a Bulldog uniform in the name of Roosevelt Jones. Andrew Chrabascz joined Jones, another low-to-the-ground, vertically-challenged player who probably wouldn’t be invited to play at most Big East or ACC teams.
Yet when the dust created from all the banging down low had settled and the overtime game was complete, Notre Dame had held the Jones-Chrabascz pairing to 14-of-34 field-goal attempts while virtually shutting down the Butler long-range game completely.
“This is the fifth game in a row in the post-season that we’ve defended to win, and I don’t know if anybody in the country hits more big-time shots in game situations than us,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, whose squad muscled up against Miami, Duke, North Carolina, Northeastern and now their long-time downstate foe to win the ACC tournament and remain one of just 16 teams left once Sunday’s competition comes to a close.
Pat Connaughton’s block of a three-point attempt by Kellen Dunham epitomized the determination that has earmarked one of the great offensive teams in Notre Dame history, but also one that can dig down deep and simply prevent the other team from out-scoring the Irish.
“I knew the day not only would come, but had to come in order for us to win championships and advance in this tournament,” said Connaughton, whose swat of Dunham’s shot in regulation with two seconds remaining sent the game into overtime and was one of Dunham’s 11 misses on 13 attempts.
Combined with guard Alex Barlow’s 1-of-6 shooting performance, the Irish limited the Butler backcourt to a combined 3-of-19, including 2-of-9 from three-point range.
“When you look across the years, there were times when I didn’t think we had the defensive power,” Connaughton said. “But with the athletes we have, the intensity that we have, the passion that we have and just the desire to win ball games, defense is something that we wanted to staple into the 2014-15 team.”
It started shortly after the conclusion of the 2013-14 season that saw the Irish fall to 15-17 – due largely to the absence of Jerian Grant – but also because Notre Dame couldn’t stop people when it was needed to win a ball game.
Brey had a plan, and it started with Demetrius Jackson – Eric Atkins’ successor at the point – pressuring the basketball.
“It almost started from when our season ended last year,” said Jackson, who limited Barlow to 1-of-6 shooting from the field and 0-of-4 from three-point range. “We were back in the gym and we did so much defense that it’s so natural for us now.
“We’ve won multiple games now with our defense. Just to be able to win a game on defense is so special for us because of how talented we are offensively. That was definitely the next step for our team, being able to rely on our defense.”
From the outside looking in, it may not always seem as if the Irish are playing great defense because more and more, the opposition is shooting the basketball closer to the rim. Brey never wants to lose a game by allowing a barrage of three-point baskets, and thus, the opposing team’s points in the paint can accumulate pretty rapidly.
“I’ll go zone and we get a missed shot, and then I start thinking about the law of averages and somebody is going to bang down a three,” Brey said. “We were in zone when Dunham wasn’t in the game. Then he came back in and I didn’t want to stay in it anymore.”
And yet with Steve Vasturia on the floor, Brey feels as if he has a defensive stopper for all situations. Vasturia started out on Dunham, switched over to the bruising Jones, and eventually matched up against equally-bruising Chrabascz.
“I wasn’t sure how the matchups would work out throughout the game, but we had to switch it up a little bit because of foul trouble and we were just trying to find the right combination,” Vasturia said.
“Everybody stepped up on the defensive end. We got those big stops, and no matter who we were on, we were locked in and we really battled. It’s the same goal every time: stop them from scoring. I was just trying to stop them from getting in the lane.”
The toughest matchup for the Irish was Jerian Grant on Jones. Grant – the sleek, athletic, open-court player – isn’t accustomed to beating the beef down low.
“It was tough, and it was definitely different,” said Grant of defending Jones on the block. “He has an array of moves down there, that hook shot, that scoop shot, and I was getting frustrated because some tough shots were going in. But we dug in defensively and got the stops when we needed it.”
“We tried a little bit of everything on (Jones),” Brey added. “He is just such a unique guy. What a warrior that kid is because I know he’s not healthy, and he played on one leg, one-and-a-half legs. He’s a hard matchup.”
When the Irish absolutely, positively had to have a stop, Brey turned to Vasturia to cool off the hot hand.
“For him to guard just about everybody we ask and then get 20 (points), he is so underrated and so unsung in our program,” said Brey of Vasturia. “I’m so happy he has two more years of eligibility left. He is such a winner. Our baby-faced assassin did it all tonight.”
Another unsung hero on the defensive end was 6-foot-10 Zach Auguste, who made just 2-of-7 shots from the field, but snagged 13 rebounds, matching the number of caroms from the ACC championship game against North Carolina, while contributing strongly to Butler’s 33.3 percent shooting.
Auguste has average 8.3 rebounds per game over the last five, which arguably have been the five most important games of the 2014-15 season.
“Zach was fabulous defensively and on the backboards tonight,” Brey said. “He is rebounding the ball better than he’s ever rebounded.”
By digging deep defensively, the Irish will have at least one more chance in Cleveland when they take on Sunday’s winner between Kansas and Wichita State. After that, it likely would be a date with undefeated Kentucky.
“We came into this season trying to do some things this program hasn’t done in a long time,” said Connaughton, who recorded a career-high five blocked shots. “We were able to persevere through some tough times and come out on top.
“We’ve been preaching the entire season that we’re going to start with defense and have defense be the rock of the program. Everyone talks about our offense, but to be able to get that stop on defense and send us into overtime and the Sweet 16, I’m very proud of these guys.”