THE RUNNING IRISH
For the first time, well, ever, Notre Dame won a competitive Athletic Coast Conference game on the strength of its two-deep. That is, 10 players contributing to the cause in the first half.
Mike Brey. 10 Notre Dame basketball players, one half of basketball.
(No typos were committed in the sentence above.)
The refreshing aspect of Brey’s stark change in bench usage is that each of the 10 contributed to a 45-39 halftime lead. And it was the bench brigade that likewise dug the Irish out of a 37-31 hole in the process.
“We always said – because I wanted them to get away from being an extension of last year's team – that I really believe this group has a chance to improve all the way up to the ACC Tournament,” said Brey of his fully engaged though sporadically utilized bench personnel. “I need you engaged when we come at you with something different or when we tweak something there.
“Our thought after the Miami loss was ‘We're playing faster.’ I'm tired of watching us walk it up. (Brey implemented a 20-second shot clock in practice this week.) That may mean more guys have to play because of fatigue, and we did that. That was one thing I wanted to look at today, and I think we found something."
They found the following:
• 15 minutes and four assists from Matt Farrell, included therein, a two-handed between the legs bounce pass, full speed on the break to a trailing Steve Vasturia for a thrilling three-pointer. (A sentence I never thought I’d type.)
• 20 minutes and 17 points from freshman Matt Ryan
• Four first half minutes, an assist, a steal, and immeasurable energy from Austin Torres
• Seven rebounds in just 12 minutes from Bonzie Colson (though Colson, like many of the Irish regulars, had an uneven performance)
• And perhaps most important, 24 minutes, 9 points on three shots, 4 steals and 4 assists from defensive wunderkind Rex Pflueger (more on the Irish defensive stopper below).
• And perhaps most important, they found a new, “fun” way to win.
“I believe that was our most fun game of the year and I can attribute it to our bench,” said Pflueger. “I think the energy in the whole place (the student body was absent due to spring break but it was hardly noticeable) started getting going because of our bench. Matt Farrell did a great job in the first half. Matt Ryan had one of the best halves of the season. The whole gym…it was a great atmosphere.”
Atmospheres will be neutral from this point forward. Notre Dame’s bench contributions will likely be anything but.
“We played a five-minute period (in practice) with an 18-second shot clock,” said Brey. “You’re playing downhill, you’re attacking. Maybe we take some semi-bad shots. I don’t care, we’re going to go, we’re going to roll with it.
“The running Irish. Headed to D.C.”
SHUT ‘EM DOWN, LIGHT ‘EM UP
Since the outset of February, North Carolina State point guard Anthony “Cat” Barber ranks second nationally in scoring. Saturday in South Bend, he ranked as the no-doubt best guard on the floor when anyone not named Rex Pflueger attempted to deter him from his goal:
Score. With impunity.
A combined 27 points when pitted against Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia, or on occasional defensive switches vs. other capable defenders such as Bonzie Colson (a highlight reel dribble, drive, and bucket ensued).
But just two points in 20 minutes when checked by Rex Pflueger.
“I’m glad you guys tracked that!” said Pflueger when informed of the numbers post-game. “I wish I got on him earlier.”
Pflueger was the 10th of 10 Irish to appear in the first half and Barber had already scored 14 points by the time Pflueger was assigned to him.
The Wolfpack whirling dervish (and a future pro) managed just one bucket, another shake-and-bake special, against the Irish freshman in the final 5:48 of the first half thereafter, and never scored against him (scoring 13 against Jackson, Vasturia, and Colson) while committing three turnovers as a result of Pflueger steals or deflections in the latter’s 14 second-half minutes.
“Obviously it’s tough, but it also gives me time to see his tendencies,” said Pflueger of inheriting a defensive assignment against a scorer already on a roll. “It helps me from an analyzing standpoint; my defensive stance. But when he gets in that flow, he’s one of the best scorers if not the best scorer in the country.”
Brey identified Pflueger for his defensive acumen in the pre-season but wondered if he could contribute enough on the other end to warrant playing time. Pflueger finished Saturday 3-for-3 from the field (all three-point shots) with four assists.
“I’ve seen so many times on Senior Day, freshmen win the game,” said Brey. “And how about our freshmen today? Matt Ryan (17 points in the first half on just seven field goal attempts) – and that was coming, bubbling the whole time – and Rex defending (Barber). I love where they are as we head into post-season. Those two guys are not freshman anymore.”
THE CREAM RISES
Junior guard Demetrius Jackson opened the second half Saturday mired in a 3-for-19 shooting slump. Included was an 0-6 effort vs. the Wolfpack and 14 frustrating minutes of getting torched by his counterpart Barber.
A second stanza explosion ensued: 6-for-9 from the field for 14 points to go with seven assists and six boards on the afternoon. Most of Jackson’s 14 points were of the highlight reel variety.
Backup Matt Farrell and the Irish bench covered for Jackson’s deficient first half. The Irish captain paid them back in spades in the second.
“Personally, I just felt like if I could keep being aggressive – I got a lot of great looks in the first half I didn’t knock down,” said Jackson. “In the second half we kept attacking, going downhill, getting the ball out quick, pushing it, just having fun.”
“It’s a trust thing,” said Pflueger of Jackson. “He trusts us to help him and we obviously trust him to finish the job for us.”
Zach Auguste’s March Through March? Not in need of a pick-me-up Saturday afternoon was Notre Dame’s 2016 Team MVP (he’ll likely share the award with Jackson), Zach Auguste.
24 points on 11 field goal attempts, 8-for-11 from the field; 8-for-11 from the foul line, and 11 rebounds. Nary a lapse over 31 minutes of game action.
“He is a flat-out machine right now,” said Brey of Auguste. “I am so impressed and so proud of the man, the leader, and the player he’s become. We have to ride him hard.”
Brey attributed Auguste’s continued improvement to a more consistent mental makeup. Auguste embraced the inner growth gleaned from his soon-to-be alma mater as well.
"It is amazing. The atmosphere here is awesome. The environment is beautiful and you meet a lot of intellectual people that care about you,” he said of his final time playing in South Bend. “I am truly honored to have played under Coach Brey."
Brey added that while Auguste has worked to keep his emotions in check and play without anger, a fine line exists.
“You don’t want to take too much of that (fire) out of there because he plays with a great edge. There’s not a big man in the country playing better than Zach Auguste.”