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O’Malley’s Key Three

Two defensive lapses on one play, a bad day for the backcourt, and the reality of a 4-on-5 quandary each presented in Saturday’s defeat.

THE WRONG WAY TO LOSE

Matt Farrell has made a living this season finding the open man – the “most open man” as our Tim Prister has noted – and deciding whether or not to finish at the rim, pull up for a jump shot, drop it down for a layup or kick it back out to the open man.

On Saturday’s final play, a 64-62 loss at Georgia Tech, he chose the pull-up. It was his second-best option with Georgia Tech’s defense collapsing on a rolling Bonzie Colson as Farrell drove. His best was a wide-open T.J. Gibbs who had swung around from the left wing to replace Farrell at the top of the key for a potential – wide-open – game-winning jump shot.

But Farrell’s choice to attempt a contested winner with six seconds remaining rather than fire the logical kick-out pass (Gibbs was clearly going to be open with three Yellow Jackets defenders surrounding Farrell and Colson) wasn’t the decisive error.

It was instead Notre Dame’s ensuing defensive lapse – one largely on Gibbs who let Georgia Tech freshman Josh Okogie slip by him in transition for an uncontested buzzer-beating game winner at the rim – but also on captain Steve Vasturia who failed to sprint back as the final four seconds ticked down.

Crashing the boards, Vasturia was within four feet of Okogie when Farrell missed, (about 92 and 88 feet from the winning rim, respectively), but the usually fundamentally perfect senior watched as Okogie ran. That mental mistake forced V.J. Beachem and Gibbs to run with their respective wing threats (Josh Heath and Okogie) – to play 2-on-2 in transition – rather than sprint back to protect the rim.

If Vasturia was within four-to-five feet of Okogie as the two began the final seconds, Gibbs could have retreated more to block his opponent’s path rather than being forced to choose between attempting a steal or staying between his man and the basket.

 “It was kind of uncharacteristic of us,” said Beachem who finished with 23 points. “We usually make those winning plays down the stretch. Tonight they made one on us.”

The Irish held their hosts scoreless for the final 5:19 prior to Okogie’s buzzer-beating layup – the second straight season in which Tech took down Notre Dame at the buzzer with a layup in Atlanta.

THE BACKCOURT BROKE

Notre Dame’s backcourt quartet of Vasturia, Farrell, Gibbs and Rex Pflueger has been lauded as gameday heroes in this space throughout the first half of the squad’s ACC slate.

Saturday, they were decidedly human.

A combined 6-for-24 shooting effort was exacerbated by eight combined turnovers (against 10 total assists) with Pflueger and Gibbs failing to score in a combined 24 minutes.

Vasturia struggled throughout, missing six of seven shots while playing 39 of the game’s 40 minutes. And though the aforementioned scoring threat Okogie was held to 8 points in 18 minutes (due in part to early foul trouble) the Irish were unable to contain reserve guard Tadric Jackson who poured in a career-high 25 points in 26 minutes.

Jackson is the second straight guard to shoot the Irish out of the gym. Virginia senior London Perrantes burned Notre Dame for 22 points on just 13 field goal attempts Tuesday in South Bend.

“I thought we shot it well enough to win,” said Farrell. “It comes down to defense. We got stops at the end.”

But they did not throughout, especially against Jackson who included four layups to go with a trio of three-pointers in his career-best outing.

Monday’s pending battle with Duke in South Bend brings the talented guard tandem of Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen to the equation – both went off for more than 25 points in separate losses to the Irish last season.

Kennard scored 34 in a comeback win at Wake Forest Saturday.

PICK YOUR POISON

Martinas Geben wasn’t getting it done defensively.

Enter Austin Torres.

Results were mixed for the Irish senior spark plug Saturday in Atlanta, but Torres generally gets it done on the defensive end. He cleans the glass, runs the floor, fouls hard, provides a lift both emotionally and physically, and dutifully attempts to protect the rim for about four minutes per half.

Ah yes, the rim. It’s not Torres’ friend on the other end. And that reality was exacerbated by his necessary 21 minutes of court time.

At present, and going forward against the elite of the ACC – which is nearly every foe – Notre Dame will be forced to choose how they want to earn a victory.

In both instances, they’re playing a bit of 4 vs. 5 on one side of the court or the other.

Torres grabbed five boards played better defense against Yellow Jackets big man Ben Lammers than Geben ever could. His plus-minus (individual game score when on the floor) was a team-best plus-12, while Geben’s was minus-7.

But it was Torres’ offense – the lack thereof – that hamstrung Notre Dame in a road defeat.

Just 1-4 from the field and 0-2 from the foul line, Torres rarely looked at the basket Saturday. Previously able to help this month with strong finishes at the rim, Torres regressed to his prior seasons’ road form. And with 38 points allowed in the paint, it’s clear his defensive presence wasn’t enough to warrant extended minutes – over anyone but the struggling Geben.

But unless six-foot nine-inch, 245-pound freshman John Mooney is suddenly deemed ready, Brey needs them both. It’s going to be a challenge to choose between them at times, because while Geben will hit his free throws and Torres will not, and while Geben presents as a more consistent receiver and finisher on the pick-and-roll, he does not provide the athleticism and help defense that Torres can.

Notre Dame’s a quality team, a Sweet 16 contender that’s proven its chops in tournament formats. But the fatal flaw has officially presented.

They’re either short a player on one end with the Torres/Geben tandem, or far too small to contend with a taller team if neither can compete at a higher level in February and beyond.


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