DEFENSE DOES THE JOB
It was Louisville that came into the game ranked third in the kenpom.com category of adjusted defensive efficiency, which measures points allowed per 100 possessions (89.7). The Cardinals also allow just 60.3 points per game.
Yet it was the Notre Dame defense – stop the presses! – that ultimately turned the tide in Saturday’s 71-66 victory over the No. 13 Cardinals, limiting the visitors to just 12 points over the final 12-and-a-half minutes.
“I talked to my team on Thursday that so much would be made of the best offense in the league against the best defense in the league,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “I said, ‘I would like the story to be about our defense. I would love to be able to come off the floor and talk about our defense being the difference.’
“In the second half, to hold them to 23 points and rebound the way we did was the key to the game.”
Trailing 54-44 with 12:22 remaining, the Irish out-scored Louisville, 27-12, the rest of the way, limiting the Cardinals to 28 percent shooting (7-of-25) in the second half while holding the visitors to just three points over the final 6:37.
“We just dug in and knew we were going to have to guard,” Brey said. “They had 43 (points) at halftime and kind of had their way with us. That’s a lot of points to give up.
“I didn’t yell (at halftime). I said, ‘We were in bad shape last Saturday (when the Irish trailed North Carolina by nine). I don’t think we’re in as bad of shape tonight, but you’re going to have to guard and rebound to win the game.’”
Louisville made 4-of-10 from three-point range in the second half – just as it did in the first. But the Cardinals were a mere 3-of-15 on two-point attempts over the final 20 minutes. The Irish won the scoring battle in the paint, 30-20. Plus, Notre Dame out-rebounded Louisville in the second half, 23-12.
“When we’re defending in the second half and we’ve got our sixth man – our students -- being loud, it creates a great atmosphere defensively of never really feeling tired,” Brey said. “Our crowd has been great the last two home games to make us believe we could win.”
Notre Dame’s dynamic guard play did a number on the Louisville backcourt in the second half. Damion Lee, Quentin Snyder, Trey Lewis and Donovan Mitchell combined for 29 points on 10-of-21 shooting in the first half, but just 17 points on a 5-of-19 shooting in the second half.
“Defense wins championship,” said Demetrius Jackson. “We need to continue to develop defensively as a team because our offense is always, for the most part, going to roll.
“We play the right way on the offensive end. So it’s really about how well we can play defense and how many stops we can get.”
HANDLING THE PRESS, 2-3 ZONE
Rick Pitino likes to create havoc for the opposition with a steady diet of backcourt pressure, and then a sticky 2-3 match-up zone coming out of the press.
It creates turnover and/or eats time off the shot clock, quickly closes shooting windows in the half-court game, and generally puts the opposition in a mode of discomfort that negatively impacts offensive flow.
Demetrius Jackson singlehandedly kept the half-court game alive in the first half, nailing 5-of-8 three-point attempts and finishing 6-of-12 for the game after coming into the contest having converted just three of his last 21 long-range attempts.
Notre Dame turned it over just nine times – Louisville forces turnovers at a 14.8-per-game rate, and eventually, the Cardinals’ press became a non-factor.
“We haven’t pressed too much this year,” Pitino said. “We’ve got about eight or 10 guys who are new in terms of playing time. We probably lost about 85 percent of our basketball team. So they’re working on it. They’re getting better, little by little.”
The Irish were one made basket shy of shooting 50 percent in the second half against a defense allowing just a 37.8 percent field-goal conversion rate. After Jackson scored 20 points in the first half and tied his career single-game scoring mark at 27, it was backcourt mate Steve Vasturia who heated up.
Vasturia scored 15 of his 20 points in the second half as he drove the basketball to the hoop against a 2-3 zone designed to prevent such penetration.
“I just wanted to get in the lane a little bit,” said Vasturia of his second-half approach. “I saw that Demetrius was able to get into the lane a lot and he was scoring and getting looks for everybody else. I figured I could create a little bit as well.”
The combined 47 points by Jackson and Vasturia had their head coach gushing about his dynamic backcourt.
“They were fabulous,” Brey said. “Demetrius was off the charts. He’s a player of the year candidate, and then Steve Vasturia was fabulous and clutch.”
The notion was pure fantasy.
Notre Dame trying to rebound against the likes of North Carolina and Louisville on back-to-back Saturdays?
Yet in Notre Dame’s 80-76 victory over North Carolina, and then this Saturday’s win over Louisville, the Irish did just that.
First, it was an incredible 20 offensive rebounds against the Tar Heels’ pack of 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-9 front-liners. This time, it was a 41-29 overall advantage over the Cardinals’ 6-foot-10 and 7-footers, including a 23-12 second-half advantage and a 7-3 edge on the offensive boards.
“To have so much of a difference (in rebounding tonight) is a surprise,” Brey said. “But the way Bonzie (Colson) and Zach (Auguste) have been playing -- how physical and tough they’ve been -- I don’t think I should be surprised.
“They have such a great will. Right now, they’re taking on other front lines and really putting it on them. I told Bonzie, ‘You guys are like the Bash Brothers II.’”
Auguste put up his 14th double-double of the season and 18th of his career with 11 points and 12 rebounds. Two-thirds (eight) of his caroms came in the second half. Colson grabbed 10 rebounds – five on each end – and is now just two shy of Auguste’s team-high 43 offensive rebounds in ACC play.
“Both North Carolina and Louisville have three or four bigs that can play,” Auguste said. “Both teams have depth and they’re aggressive on the glass. We just keep battling and fighting until the end.”
When you add up the offensive efficiency and the improved play on the defensive end as well as the work on the backboards, Notre Dame’s game has become a well-rounded effort that’s difficult to defeat.
“They know they found something last Saturday,” said Brey of his team.
Tied for third in the ACC and with three of the bottom five ACC teams up next on the schedule – albeit on the road – Brey has his eyes set gazing upward.
“Why not talk about a regular-season championship?” Brey said. “Last year’s team chased a regular-season championship until about the last week or so. Why not chase that?”