COMPENSATING FOR JACKSON
It wasn’t like the Irish had to overcome a quality opponent when Demetrius Jackson went down with a right hamstring injury just 2:16 into Saturday’s 76-49 victory over Boston College.
Most quality basketball teams could cobble together a plan without their starting point guard against the woeful Eagles. But the Irish did it so seamlessly that Jackson’s absence from the lineup made thoughts of his return this Thursday at Syracuse way more pertinent than a re-appearance against the Eagles Saturday.
Steve Vasturia took over most of the point guard duties, freshman Rex Pflueger chipped in, and V.J. Beachem scored 14 points without a three-pointer on several drives to the bucket that resulted in six two-point field goals – a season-high – after coming into the game with 61.1 percent of his baskets of the three-point variety.
“I’m very proud of how we didn’t let (Jackson’s injury) be a distraction at all,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “We methodically had a very good league win. You’ve got some veteran guys and some maturity there.”
Vasturia continued a trend that began with the start of his junior season as the penetration game has become another weapon in his arsenal. While Vasturia’s stat line wasn’t overly impressive – four assists, three turnovers, two steals and just 3-of-9 from the field, including 1-of-4 from three-point range – he commandeered the ship and led a strong Irish effort at the free-throw line (9-of-10).
“It’s definitely different,” said Vasturia of playing 38 minutes without Jackson on the floor. “We’ve done a good job all year of coming off the bench, picking up and playing the way we play.”
Notre Dame had just 23 field goals with a sub-par 5-of-14 from beyond the arc but 25 free throws made – the second most of the season behind the 28 converted against Georgia Tech three games earlier.
“Stay in attack mode, keep screening for Steve, and stay within ourselves,” said Irish sophomore Bonzie Colson, who did his part by scoring a co-team-leading 16 points with seven rebounds and three assists.
“It’s different having Steve run the show, but we trust Steve with the ball. He’s brought the ball up in practice a lot of times. He’s been there before. We just had to continue to do what we do – screen-and-roll, post touches, and screen away from the ball.”
The Irish do not have a consistent defensive presence as part of their identity. The Mike Brey trademark comes on the other end of the floor.
But even before Jackson was sidelined with the hamstring injury, the Irish came into the Boston College game with an opportunity to feast on a poor offensive unit and maximized that opportunity.
“One of the things I thought we really needed to do today was defend for 40 minutes,” Brey said. “Our defensive numbers today were better. (Rex) Pflueger in the game on their best player had something to do with it. But we had to be better there.
“Our defensive numbers are still not acceptable overall, but can this get us trending defensively? Offensively, we’re No. 1 (in points per possession). So we’ve got that handled. It’s defensive improvement, and I felt we needed to do it no matter who we played. We can grow off of that.”
The Eagles came into the game shooting just 42.1 percent from the field. Notre Dame lowered that number by limiting Boston College to 16-of-56 from the field (28.6 percent), including a mere 6-of-30 (20 percent) in the second half.
Led by the aforementioned best Boston College offensive player – Eli Carter – the Eagles hit 8-of-18 from three-point range. But on two-point attempts, they were just 8-of-38 (21 percent).
“That orange ball has got to go through the orange basket,” said Boston College coach Jim Christian. “We had four turnovers in the (first) half. We had (56) shots and (38) came (from two-point range). That means you’re getting layups and open jump shots.”
It was a woeful shooting afternoon for the Eagles. Carter made 5-of-13, which was the top performance percentage-wise among the six players that logged at least 20 minutes. Jerome Robinson was 2-of-11 and Darryl Hicks was 3-of-9. The starting frontline of Garland Owens, A.J. Turner and Dennis Clifford were a combined 2-of-18.
Brey’s proudest proclamation defensively was the performance of Zach Auguste, whose defensive presence generally is a hit-and-miss proposition.
“Zach Auguste didn’t have the big offensive night he had the other night (vs. Virginia Tech),” said Brey after Auguste’s 10-point, 10-rebound game. “But his defense on the ball screen with Carter…How he showed and came back on Clifford and got deflections…He was fabulous.
“It was a two-man deal defending Carter. Rex was great; don’t get me wrong. But you’ve got to have help from that big, and Z knew when to fake, when to get back, and he got deflections. He anchored us back there, and I told him that’s the best he’s done in that area.”
THE PRESSURE IS OFF
When the Irish went on a 7-0 run to start the second half, which eventually would expand to a 16-2 run, there wasn’t much mystery left to the outcome of Saturday’s Boston College game.
But Notre Dame’s 25-of-27 from the free-throw line continued a recent trend that has raised the mark for the season to 72.4 percent, which was a tick below 68 percent as recent as four games ago.
Over the last four games against Georgia Tech, Duke, Virginia Tech and Boston College, the Irish have converted 89-of-107 for a sizzling 83.1 percent.
“It’s become a weapon, and you know why? We don’t work on it (live) in practice,” Brey said. “We don’t do it anymore.
“Sometimes, when you say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do pressure free throws. Everybody’s got to make one or we’re going to run…’ We haven’t work on it as a team. I tell them to shoot them on their own.
“Sometimes you can over-coach that and over-emphasize that and guys get tight. We haven’t done any team pressure free throws (in practice) in two weeks.”
Vasturia led the way by converting 9-of-10. Both Pflueger and Colson made their four attempts. Beachem was 2-of-2. Even Auguste – a 63.4 percent free-throw shooter for the year -- had a productive day at the line, making 6-of-7.
Notre Dame had just 11 field goals in the second half, but was a perfect 16-of-16 after the intermission.
“Coach always says it’s a great weapon for us, and it really is,” Vasturia said. “If you can get to the foul line and knock down free throws, you’re really going to help yourself.”