POISED UNDER PRESSURE
Conference basketball on the road can lead to a wild swing of emotions and performances.
In mid-January, Notre Dame traveled to Durham, N.C. to take on Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the Irish were chewed up and spit out a year earlier. This time, the Irish came away with a 95-91 victory.
Less than two weeks later, the Irish came out flat and remained out of sync in an 81-66 loss at Syracuse. The results were similar – actually, even worse – less than a week later in a 79-70 loss at Miami that easily could have been 79-60 considering the way the Irish performed.
Monday night at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C., a poised Notre Dame team (17-7, 8-4) took a 6-0 lead within the first two minutes and never trailed. The Irish converted 57.1 percent of their second-half shots as Clemson (14-10, 7-5) made run after run to no avail in the visiting team’s 89-83 victory.
After losing four of five to close out December, the Tigers ran off five straight victories to enter the AP Top 25, knocking off the likes of Syracuse, Louisville, Duke and Miami – the upper echelon of the ACC – in consecutive games while limiting the latter three to 65 points or less as one of the nation’s top defensive teams.
The Fighting Irish answered every call, converting 10-of-22 from three-point range (45.5 percent) and 21-of-25 (84.0 percent) from the free-throw line.
All five starters and three players off the bench played significant, positive roles for the Irish.
• Zach Auguste – who has battled inconsistency on the road – had to sit out the final 11:54 of the first half after picking up his second foul. He took off in the second half and finished with 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting with eight rebounds.
• Bonzie Colson was just 3-of-9 from the field, but tossed in 11 points on 5-of-6 from the free-throw line. He also had eight rebounds.
• Demetrius Jackson continued to struggle with his jump shot, which has been a pattern since suffering a hamstring injury on Jan. 23. But he finished with 17 points and steadied the ship throughout.
• Steve Vasturia didn’t reach double-digit scoring (10 points) until late in the game, but he paced Notre Dame’s modest assist total with four, penetrated the lane and hit a couple of three-pointers in the final 10 minutes of the game to keep the Tigers at bay.
• V.J. Beachem staked the Irish to a 6-0 lead with a pair of three-pointers and finished 4-of-7 from distance with 15 points. His three-pointer on an in-bounds play with 3:40 remaining raised Notre Dame’s lead to 12 and was another dagger in the chest of the struggling Tigers.
• The trio of Rex Pflueger, Matt Ryan and Austin Torres were effective off the bench, combining for 17 points and five rebounds without a turnover in 32 minutes of action.
The Irish struggled defensively, allowing Jaron Blossomgame to toss in 30 points on 13-of-19 shooting while the Tigers converted 10-of-20 from three-point range. Clemson cut it to one at the 16:50 mark of the second half, but never could tie it or take the lead.
Notre Dame’s balanced scoring attack – and poise on the road – handed the Tigers their first home conference loss in six outings.
NOTRE DAME’S DETERMINING TWO
Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia and Bonzie Colson succumb to sporadic play on the road just like everybody else. By and large, however, they are the steadying forces a majority of the time.
The road outcome usually sways on the performance of Zach Auguste and V.J. Beachem, whose confidence and consistency can ebb and flow like the ocean tides.
Beachem confidently fired in a couple of three-pointers within the first two minutes of the game and played a solid 30 minutes. Beachem can be a bit shy on the backboards – he finished with just three rebounds – and isn’t the type of player to dig in defensively. But for the second straight game, he aggressively blocked a shot and played with more bounce in his step.
Auguste is the key cog for the Irish on the road because of his length and athleticism. He scored twice inside within the first 6:15 of the game, and after missing more than half of the first half due to foul trouble, attacked the rim in the second half on pick-and-rolls to the basket with Jackson and Vasturia repeatedly finding the big man.
Auguste smartly attacked Clemson big men Landry Nnoko and Sidy Djitte, single-handedly getting the Tigers’ front line in foul trouble. That allowed Auguste to confidently assert himself against Nnoko and Djitte, whose aggressiveness was mitigated by the fear of further foul trouble.
Auguste used an array of attacking moves, including a beautiful spin down the lane starting from the free-throw line, which drew a foul and was converted into a three-point play.
It’s too simple to say as Auguste goes, so go the Irish. There are numerous other factors. But when Auguste is attacking, playing smart, and keeping his foul total at a manageable level – coupled with the steady play of Colson inside – Notre Dame is able to offset its short bench up front and provide the inside-outside presence that makes Mike Brey’s offense go.
BENCH PLAY, FREE-THROW DISPLAY
Notre Dame’s bench doesn’t go very deep, and even when it does, it doesn’t necessarily show up in the box score, although that’s been on the uptick, as it was Monday night at Clemson.
Rex Pflueger played 22 solid minutes on both ends of the court. He scored six points with four rebounds, a steal and an assist without a turnover. Pflueger played outstanding position defense, reacting proactively to screens and back-door cuts. On a couple of occasions, Pflueger drifted away from his man and sunk into the lane to prevent penetration.
It’s been a tough few weeks for fellow freshman Matt Ryan, whose pretty jumper had eluded him recently while battling a hip-pointer. Ryan, who started a couple of games that launched the Irish on a four-game winning streak after opening 1-2 in ACC play, fired in a pair of three-pointers within a 1:30 span in the first half against the Tigers that sparked a 10-2 run en route to a 35-29 halftime lead.
Austin Torres never knows when Mike Brey is going to press his button in pursuit of some instant energy off the bench. Coming into the game with just 19 points in 20 games, Torres grabbed an offensive rebound, scored and converted the free throw amidst the 10-2 run that Ryan initiated. Torres also had a steal in his two minutes of action.
Then when it came time to seal the deal, the Irish continued their torrid pace at the free-throw line. Notre Dame is now 169-of-212 from the line in the last nine games (79.7 percent).