Farrell helps ignite comeback at Illinois

Farrell played in 15 games last year, including briefly in just five ACC games. But his ball-handling, penetration skills will lead to increased time as the 2015-16 unfolds.

Late in the first half Wednesday night in the State Farm Center at Illinois, sophomore guard Matt Farrell – known for his quickness – ran right out of his right shoe.

He played the next 45 seconds or so with a shoe on his left foot and nothing but a stocking on his right.

There wasn’t much he could do in that state.

He proved to be much more effective with both shoes on.

Farrell logged a career-high 23 minutes, scoring 10 points grabbing four defensive rebounds, handing out an assist and, perhaps most importantly, allowing Demetrius Jackson to play off the ball in Notre Dame’s 84-79 come-from-behind victory over the Illini.

Farrell’s ability to take the ball-handling responsibilities off Jackson and Steve Vasturia allowed Jackson – who picked up his third foul with 17:29 remaining – to score 17 of his 21 points in the second half while Vasturia tallied 10 of his 21 points after the intermission as the Irish scored 51 second-half points and erased a 10-point deficit.

“Tonight was kind of a Matt Farrell off-the-bench night,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “He gave us another ball handler and took some pressure off D. He brought the ball down, he made free throws, and he’s improved defensively, so we rode him.”

The 6-foot-1, 175-pound sophomore out of Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. has waited his turn in the Irish program, which made a run to the Elite Eight during Farrell’s freshman season with the Irish.

For one who is used to being at the forefront of the action – he was a three-time captain at Point Pleasant Beach High School, two-time first-team Shore Conference selection and first-team all-state performer – biding time is not part of his background.

He saw action in just 15 games last year as a freshman while seeing brief time in just five conference games.

Farrell moved up in the pecking order at guard with the graduation of first-round NBA draft choice Jerian Grant, tossing in a career-high seven points in the 2015-16 season-opener against St. Francis (Pa.).

But last weekend in the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando, he saw his time dwindle in Notre Dame’s one-point loss to Alabama as the Irish dropped two-of-three.

There was nothing to indicate that Farrell’s role would expand significantly against Illinois until the Irish struggled in man-to-man defense in the first half and Brey began looking for a spark.

Farrell’s three-point play just past the midway point of the first half helped earn him 12 minutes of action. He garnered 11 more minutes of playing time in the second half, hitting 5-of-6 free throws down the stretch to help seal the victory while loosening things up for his high-scoring backcourt partners.

“Personally, I’m still trying to find out my role,” said Farrell, who played just six minutes and scored two points in Sunday’s loss to Alabama. “Whatever I can do to help the team. Tonight, Meech (Jackson) was in my ear throughout the whole night to be aggressive.

“This past weekend, I was a little 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.”

Farrell, who is a “scoring point guard” by trade, gives the Irish flexibility in the backcourt.

“It takes a lot of pressure off of Meech (Jackson),” said Farrell of his ball-handling skills. “There was that stretch when (Jackson) came up to me and was like, ‘If you bring the ball up, look at me, I’m coming off (screens) to score.’

“(Jackson is) a scorer, so it’s easy for me to look for him and I can relocate. We’re getting good shots. It takes a lot of pressure off him and Steve when I can come in and initiate the offense.”

In Notre Dame’s first true road game of the season, Farrell provided a steadying influence, one that will be needed in ACC play.

“I was really impressed with Matt Farrell on the road in his first experience,” Brey said. “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.

“What he did in the first half when we were dying, he kind of saved us. I’m saying to myself he may be the answer. He’s another ball-handler who can just go out and handle, then Steve and D don’t have to handle it all the time.”

Farrell, who made his reputation in the prep ranks with his aggressive, attacking play, is not one to be bothered by road venues.

“I’m never one to get caught up in the crowd,” Farrell said. “I just play my game and don’t worry about it. We’ll have big road games later on in the year. It’s good for my confidence, and my teammates trust me.”

And yet Farrell found himself in unfamiliar territory a few days earlier when the Irish were upset by Alabama. Farrell was not his normally aggressive self.

“That’s something (assistant coach Martin Ingelsby) has been encouraging me to do,” Farrell said. “Take open shots. They keep telling me I’m a scorer, so be aggressive. When I got in (against Illinois), that was something I really wanted to key on. Get in the lane, get my teammates involved, and finish when I could.”

It’s a formula that Brey will look to tap into in the future.

“He can make a shot and he’s improved defensively, so we can keep him in longer,” Brey said. “Matt Farrell continues to be very important to us.”

Even more so with both shoes on.

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