ZACH ATTACK…AND ATTACKED
The stat sheet shows 22 points and a career-best 15 rebounds. Both paint an accurate picture of senior Zach Auguste’s dominance against Virginia Tech Wednesday evening. He was unstoppable inside in the second half (shooting 8 for 11 on the evening); he cleaned the defensive glass (9) and kept possessions alive offensively (6 off. boards).
He even delivered clutch free throws late – for the second straight contest.
“He was just killing us on the glass,” said Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams. “We were playing six-foot-five Rec League (by comparison). We just couldn’t keep him off the glass.”
Brey likewise lauded his senior center. “Zach was unbelievable. He was a force and he was all over the place. That’s two games in a row that he has made big free throws and I think that is growth for him.”
Comprising the Hokies first 20 made field goals were 16 layups and four 3-point buckets. SIXTEEN LAYUPS.
It wasn’t until the 11:22 mark of the second half that the visitors made their first points – a jump shot by Justin Bibbs – on something other than a layup/dunk, 3-point shot, or free throw.
Notre Dame’s inability to defend its rim for the game’s first 25-plus minutes was staggering, but the defense tightened late, yielding just three layups over the game’s final 14 minutes.
“Having each other’s backs, being in the gaps, sliding your feet, getting over and giving effort,” said Irish guard Demetrius Jackson of the stark defensive improvement. “Defense, our coaches really teach us about it. We have the tools we need. It’s about executing it. 17 layups is way too many. Once we gave more effort and had more attention to detail – lefties try to drive left; right-handers try to drive right – those type of things, we were able to execute on the defensive end.
It’s likewise telling that Auguste, Notre Dame’s six-foot-ten inch center, didn’t pick up his second foul – in a game that included 19 total layups/dunks by the opposition – with 7:38 remaining. While it’s paramount that Auguste avoid unnecessary fouls, the occasional body (his) crashing into that of a penetrating guard’s, is clearly necessary as well.
PURPOSEFUL PICK AND ROLL
Though Williams might disagree, his squad’s overall defensive effort vs. Notre Dame’s bread-and-butter – the high pick-and-roll – was outstanding for the bulk of the contest.
Then came the final seven minutes when Jackson and determined drives following high ball screens, became the game’s telltale play.
“Just keeping my dribble alive and trying to turn the corner,” said Jackson of a final seven minutes that included eight Irish layups or dunks – four by Jackson and two apiece from Auguste and Steve Vasturia.
“And if I couldn’t turn the corner, backing it out and then turn the corner. When you’re aggressive, good things happen. I tried to go north-south (to the hole) more instead of going east-west (parallel to it).”
Williams lamented the difficulty of guarding Jackson in Brey’s offense.
“They’re the number one team in offensive efficiency in the country,” he began. “It’s a little bit of pick your poison. I don’t think you can guard their ball screens the same over and over because they just pick you apart. I think you have to have multiple plans on matchups and ball screen coverage. For the most part I think we did that ok. Brey doesn’t have a guy on the court who can’t play, pass and shoot.”
In addition to Auguste’s game-high 22 points were 18 by Jackson, 14 from Vasturia, and 15 “off the bench” by Bonzie Colson. Combined the quartet connected on 24 of 41 shots (58.5 percent).
THEY’RE (BECOMING) WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE
Physical toughness on the defensive end is lacking for Brey’s current-edition Irish, and with two finesse players among its seven-man rotation (Auguste and V.J. Beachem) plus a freshman in Matt Ryan that’s a work-in-progress on the defensive end, that reality is unlikely to change.
But mental toughness – the will to overcome and fight to the end – presents in spades. Not since Pittsburgh had its way with Notre Dame in the first half of what later became a fantastic basketball game (albeit in defeat) has Notre Dame appeared to be anything but an NCAA Tournament-bound team.
Brey’s Irish haven’t flinched since the halftime break against those hot-shooting Panthers. They haven’t been perfect offensively, and they certainly haven’t defended well, but they’ve been the best team on the floor for six of the last seven halves of basketball – three wins and a near miracle comeback the end result.
In short, Notre Dame is (finally) what we thought they were: defensively deficient but an offensive machine that can carve up most opponents, save for perhaps Virginia and likely Louisville – the Cardinals and their No. 1 national defense head to South Bend on Feb. 13.
As important, they’ve regained the heart of a champion that was present last season on Tobacco Road and through a heart-wrenching defeat against undefeated, No. 1 Kentucky in the Elite 8.
But unlike earlier this season, to beat Notre Dame – and ACC teams will do so, at least five more times over the next 12 regular season contests – you’re going to have to kill them. They won’t stop until the final buzzer sounds. It wasn’t off base to question the collection’s collective guts and poise under pressure two weeks ago – it would be today.
If you’re a fan of the Irish in this parity-driven era of college basketball, you can’t ask for much more.