CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – A sea of orange and some pre-game pyrotechnics greeted visiting Notre Dame Wednesday night at Illinois’ newly-renovated State Farm Center.
It blew up in the Illini’s face in the second half.
Trailing by 10 points 1:06 into the second half, Notre Dame went on a 27-9 run, converting 15 of its first 24 shots while Illinois (3-5) missed all but three of its first 20 attempts in the second half as the Irish (5-2) pulled away for an 84-79 victory.
The victory marked the 1,800th in Notre Dame history.
“A fabulous win for this team as we’re searching for an identity,” said Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey.
Demetrius Jackson scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half and Steve Vasturia netted a career-high 21 points to lead Notre Dame to a much-needed road victory after dropping two-of-three in the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Earlier in the week, Brey said he relished the challenge of putting together a team amidst adversity after falling by two points to Monmouth and one-point to Alabama sandwiched around a victory over Iowa in Orlando.
It took a while as the Irish trailed over a 10-minute stretch, starting with about five minutes left in the first half. But hard-charging Notre Dame overtook the Illini and eventually would lead by 14 points.
Illinois scored 13 of the final 17 points to make the final score closer than it was.
“I love how we bounced back after having some disappointment in Orlando,” Brey said. “To bounce back and to win on the road after being down (10), I’m really proud of the group.”
Five different Illini players nailed three-pointers in the first half en route to a 41-33 lead. In addition to assisting on nine of their 17 field goals, the Illini turned the basketball over just once in the first 20 minutes.
But with Brey turning to a zone defense – despite the fact Illinois had such success from distance in the first half – the Irish turned the tide. The Illini shot just 35.1 percent in the second half, and much of the best shooting came after the Irish had built a double-digit lead on the strength of 57.1 percent second-half shooting, including 6-of-10 from three-point range.
Jackson, Vasturia and V.J. Beachem each connected on three three-pointers. Zach Auguste took care of most of Notre Dame’s interior scoring, finishing with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Bonzie Colson added seven rebounds.
“I thought in the second half, we did a great job defensively in our zone, and our offensive efficiency really picked up,” Brey said. “Just a good early-season road win for a nucleus that’s finding themselves and figuring themselves out.”
“It was a huge win for us in our first true road game, and to have the leadership that we did,” said Jackson, who converted all five of his second-half field-goal attempts, including both three-pointers as the Irish connected on 6-of-10 and 10-of-20 for the game. “I’m just really proud of the team. A great bounce-back win for us.”
Notre Dame got a boost from sophomore guard Matt Farrell, who scored 10 points in 23 minutes of action, including 6-of-7 from the free-throw line to go along with four rebounds and an assist.
Farrell’s presence in the lineup allowed Jackson and Vasturia to play off the ball instead of serving as the primary ball handlers, which played a significant role in allowing Jackson to score 17 second-half points.
“Tonight was kind of a Matt Farrell off the bench night,” Brey said. “You ride him a little bit more. He gave us another ball handler and took some pressure off of D(emetrius). He brought the ball down, he makes free throws, he’s improved defensively, so we rode him.
“I was really impressed with Matt Farrell on the road in his first experience like this. He helps (Jackson and Vasturia). He can get ‘em a blow, but he also handles the ball and they can get away from the ball sometimes and get open.”
Farrell wasn’t nearly as aggressive in Orlando, which prompted a call to action for the 6-foot-1, 175-pounder.
“I’m still trying to find my role,” said Farrell, who played just six minutes and scored two points in Sunday’s loss to Alabama. “Tonight, Meech (Jackson) was in my ear to be aggressive.
“This past weekend, I was hesitant. But when I got in there early tonight, I wanted to be aggressive, get in the lane, finish what I could and get my teammates the ball. I thought I did a better job tonight and our offense flowed much better.”
After failing to log any playing time in the first half and just seven minutes in three games in Orlando, 6-foot-7 junior Austin Torres played four minutes in the second half as the middle man on the back line of the zone.
Torres was part of the second half run that saw the Irish turn a 43-33 deficit with 18:54 left in the game into a 45-44 led five-and-a-half minutes later. Torres anchored the back end of the zone for a few minutes before Auguste and Colson took over. The Auguste-Colson duo combined for 16 of their 21 rebounds in the second half.
“We were having such a hard time in man-to-man that you’ve got to try something else,” Brey said. “What it does, especially on the road, is it changes the rhythm of those three-pointers. That helped us and my feeling was we were going to ride this until the end because I felt it was the only option we had.
“We’ve done this before, but it was interesting to see us win a game playing zone. I thought it would be a strength of ours. It’s something we’ve got to keep tuning up and having ready.”
The residual benefit was that the Irish were able to get out in transition more. The final tally said the Irish had just two fast-break points. But the Irish were able to spread the court more, which led to the 51-point second-half explosion.
“We got some early, easy buckets and didn’t have to play against their (half-court) defense,” said Brey of the second-half spurt. “Their defense really bothered us in the first half. I thought we shot fast and played fast and turned it over, all because of their defense.
“Because we’re longer, we have some length and some size, and with (Jackson and Vasturia) at the top of the zone, they’re so instinctive defensively, they were able to guard shooters.”
Vasturia made 9-of-14 shots from the field, scoring 11 points in the first half and 10 in the second.
“Just taking what the defense gives you,” said Vasturia, who eclipsed his previous high of 20 points against Butler in last year’s NCAA tournament.
“We’ve got so many options on our team offensively that anybody can score on a given night. I’m just trying to pick my spots. Tonight I was able to get to the lane and attack and not only finish, but get shots for guys.”
The loss was Illinois’ fourth in six games. Malcolm Hill led the Illini with 19 points. Jalen Coleman-Lands finished with 14 points on 4-of-10 shooting from three-point range. Kendrick Nunn and Michael Finke each had 13 points.
The game marked the first for the Illini without 6-foot-11, 270-pound fifth-year senior Mike Thorne, Jr., who was averaging 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game before suffering a knee injury Saturday against Iowa State.