THE BIG 3…PLUS
Steve Vasturia, Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson combined for 64 points on 20-of-44 shooting from the field, including 20-of-23 from the free-throw line.
V.J. Beachem continued to struggle; Rex Pflueger and T.J. Gibbs continued providing quality minutes off the bench. Martin Geben added little offensively in 18 minutes of action, but his insertion into the lineup in the final minutes made a defensive difference. The real wild card this time was senior Austin Torres, who scored six points in just four minutes.
This isn’t your typical six- or seven-man Mike Brey rotation. Productivity can come from a multitude of places on any given night, which is why the No. 23-ranked Irish (13-2, 2-0) led this game for 37:42, answering every Louisville charge in their 77-70 victory over the No. 9 Cardinals (12-3, 0-2) Wednesday night at Purcell Pavilion.
Vasturia – who struggled and was foul-plagued against Pittsburgh before scoring 10 of Notre Dame’s last 12 points in Saturday’s road victory – was good from start to finish. He hit 2-of-4 three-pointers, drove to the basket to pick up common as well as shooting fouls, and then made the crossing runner in the lane with 19.7 seconds left to seal the victory.
Farrell, perhaps the nation’s most improved player, continues to add layers to his game. He scored 22 points against the Cardinals, tying his career-high set against Purdue.
Louisville could not keep Farrell out of the lane, and no matter how long one of Louisville’s out-stretched arms reached, he had the proper shooting angle to avoid the blocked shot.
“We wanted to put them on their heels right away,” Farrell said. “We wanted to go downhill against them. They’re a very good defensive team and we wanted to spread them out and get their big guys away from the rim.
“We really attacked them off the dribble, which will be good for us moving forward because we’ve got guys who can get in the lane and make plays.”
There’s little doubt as to who holds the keys to Notre Dame’s offensive push.
“It’s his show, it’s his team,” said Brey of Farrell, “and the group really responds to him.”
Colson? Well, Colson did what he always does. With his 18 points and 14 rebounds, he’s averaging 19.5 points and 14.0 rebounds per game in two ACC contests.
“Bonzie against a frontline like that, he just takes ‘em on,” Brey said. “I think I’ve got the best guards in the country. Those two guys are tough, they’re fearless, their basketball IQ is high…Right now, they’re setting an unbelievable tone for us in league play.”
Moments after his insertion into the lineup less than eight minutes into the game, Torres rebounded a T.J. Gibbs miss for his first bucket. A career 50 percent shooter from the free-throw line, he nailed a pair 25 seconds later. Torres also expanded Notre Dame’s lead to nine with 14:50 left in the game on a pass from Vasturia.
“Austin is not a captain, but he’s a heckuva leader for us,” Brey said. “How he talks in our locker room before a game and in huddles…He’d only played one minute at Pittsburgh. But every time we came to timeouts down the stretch, he was the first guy talking.
“He is such a team-guy. Because he’s into it like that and not pouting at Pittsburgh, he can do this tonight.”
Pflueger, Notre Dame’s defensive specialist, shot just twice – both three-pointers – in 19 minutes of action. His one make was a massive trey from the corner with 6:12 left to give the Irish a 64-60 lead as points became more difficult to come by. He helped shut down Donovan Mitchell – who scored 25 points against Indiana – in the second half.
So many players are performing well for the Irish that Beachem’s 1-of-3 shooting and three rebounds in 34 minutes stands out.
“I thought he helped us move,” said Brey of Beachem. “That doesn’t show up in the stats, but he’s that senior presence out there that helps us flow. It will come back to him.
“The worst thing to do right now is to overanalyze him. He needs to get right back on the horse and keep playing. It could be his day (vs. Clemson) on Saturday afternoon.”
DEFENSE DOES IT AGAIN
Brey’s teams through his 17 years at Notre Dame have been, to say the least, predominately offensive-oriented squads that out-scored opponents while trying (hoping?) to limit the opposition’s scoring output.
Two games into the 2016-17 ACC schedule, the Irish have held high-scoring Pittsburgh and a long, athletic Louisville team to less than 40 percent shooting en route to a couple of ACC victories out of the chute.
“The thing I’m so impressed with is that we’ve played two (ACC) games now, and their field-goal percentage is under 40,” said Brey, whose squad limited Pittsburgh to 27-of-72 shooting (37.5) and Louisville to 25-of-64 (39.0). “That’s kind of new territory for us at that end of the floor.
“We weren’t really flowing offensively, but can we go back and guard? A ‘kill’ is three stops in a row. We’ve gotten kills against two ACC teams with under four minutes and in the overtime Saturday to win the game. Our defense kind of won the game for us.”
Tied at 68 when Farrell picked up his fourth foul, Notre Dame out-scored Louisville 9-2 the rest of the way. It comes on the heels of out-scoring Pittsburgh 6-1 at the end of regulation and 8-2 at the end of overtime Saturday to claim a 78-77 victory over the Panthers.
Louisville missed four of its final five shots. An erratic three-point shooting team all season – the Cardinals came into the game last in the ACC in three-point percentage (33.1) – Louisville managed just 7-of-27 (25.9), including 3-of-16 (18.7) in the second half.
“We said in the huddle with three minutes left that we like being in those situations,” Vasturia said. “We practice them. We’ve got guys who are going to step up.
“It’s even more evident when you make those big plays on the defensive end rather than the offensive end because that happens a lot. To get a big steal or get a big rebound is something that’s really big for this team moving forward.”
Notre Dame’s top two defenders – Vasturia and Pflueger – headline the defensive effort, although Geben and Colson helped the Irish clamp down in the paint late. After Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell scored 16 points in the first half on 5-of-11 shooting, Pflueger, mainly, held him to four points and 2-of-9 shooting in the second half.
Assisting the cause was a 38-to-35 rebounding advantage, which is no small feat against a team that features 7-foot-0 Anas Mahmoud, 6-foot-10 Mangok Mathiang, 6-foot-10 Ray Spalding, 6-foot-9 Jaylen Johnson, and 6-foot-7 Deng Adel.
“Everybody went to the glass, which is something I try to point out as a leader,” said Colson, who’s now had 14 rebounds in each of the first two ACC tilts. “Everybody has to crash the glass. No matter who it is, we can run, but we’ve got to deal with these tall, athletic, long wings, and I feel like we did that.”
GO WITH THE FLOW
In the opening minutes of the game, it looked like it was going to be a long night for the Irish offensively as Louisville’s aggressiveness and length made it difficult for a player to enter the paint, let alone enter it with basketball in hand.
But it didn’t take long for the well-oiled Irish offense to create shots against the Cardinals. For much of the first half, it was a lay-up drill for Notre Dame with Farrell sprinkling in some acrobatic blasts to the baskets, shooting over the out-stretched arms of the Louisville frontline.
Notre Dame finished with 24 points in the paint in the first half and added another 10 in the second half while hitting 22-of-25 from the line, including 15-of-16 in the second half. Notre Dame’s ability to drive the ball to the basket limited its assists to six, but created great one-on-one scoring opportunities.
“We played pretty much with one big guy,” Brey said. “We started with two bigs and we finished with two bigs. But we really downshifted, which gave us the ability to drive and really spread them out.
“When we do that against a big team, I’m always worried about rebounding well enough. We did except for that one spurt in the second half. They started to get some put-backs, so we put Marty back in and it kind of held the fort for us.”
Notre Dame shot 43.9 percent from the field (25-of-57), which may not sound like a scintillating offensive performance. But it was the fourth best percentage against the Cardinals this season.
The Irish attempted just 12 three-point attempts – connecting on five – which was a testament to Notre Dame’s ball movement and ability to score inside the arc.
Notre Dame’s 77 points against the Cardinals was the highest output against Louisville in 15 games. Early-season opponents of Louisville included Baylor, Purdue, Kentucky, Virginia and Indiana.