THE PERILS OF LEAGUE PLAY
Team No. 1 entered on a two-game high and after tonight might own the longest current winning streak in the conference. Team No. 2, conversely, tipped off tonight at home on a seven-game skid.
Team No. 1 has aspirations for a double bye in the upcoming conference tournament and a prime NCAA Tournament seed as a result. Team No. 2 is the only sub-.500 squad in the ACC and last year finished 0-18 in conference action.
And of course, Team No. 2 led Team No. 1 by 11 at the break.
Such is life in modern conference basketball, where the chaff and wheat aren’t fully separated on any given weeknight.
“We are really fortunate to get out of here with a win. I think the story was we defended better in the second half,” said head coach Mike Brey of Notre Dame’s defense that held their hosts to just 26 second-half points against a fifty-spot in the first. “We went zone and that changed their rhythm.”
That zone resulted in six consecutive defensive stops that turned a six-point deficit into a 63-59 Irish lead they never relinquished.
“I think in the first half we weren’t playing with enough energy or the passion we need to play with, especially in this league,” said junior point guard Matt Farrell. “There are no easy games. We talked about it at halftime that they’re playing harder than us, and out-working us and we can’t let that happen.
“That’s energy and effort, two things we can control. So in the second half we wanted to play with more passion.”
Let that be a lesson entering Saturday’s contest in Raleigh vs. the league’s second-worst team, North Carolina State.
THEY ARE WHO WE THINK THEY ARE
The aforementioned 50 first half points surrendered by the Irish weren’t solely the result of failure to hustle and a lack of attention to detail.
There’s a hole in the middle Irish Sports Fans, and it’s not getting plugged anytime soon. Notre Dame’s interior defense is its Achilles heel, and Boston College’s perimeter talent was able to take advantage of that reality.
“It was like clinic stuff. When (Eagles head coach) Jim (Christian) speaks to the clinic this spring they’re going to show the first half against us because they cut us up left, right, slipping ball screens and we had no answer for it,” said Brey.
Leading the charge was explosive freshman scorer Ky Bowman who posted 17 of his game-high 29 points in the first half.
“We had no answers for him,” said Brey. “He’s as good as any young guard in that league (Bowman exploded for 33 points in an 8-point loss to North Carolina in January). I didn’t think we did a very good job on some of the ball screens but he made some tough ones too and he made them confident and made them believe.
“They put 50 of us at halftime. Fifty!” Brey added. “Fortunately we had (39) and were within striking distance.”
The Cream Rises: Though Notre Dame’s defense dug deep in the second, holding the Eagles to just eight field goals on 24 attempts, it was the Irish offense that staved off ignominious defeat.
Brey’s self-proclaimed Big Four of Farrell, Bonzie Colson, Steve Vasturia, and V.J. Beachem scored or assisted on 73 of Notre Dame’s 84 points (scoring 70). Colson led the charge with 20 while Farrell posted 19, Beachem 16 with a team-high eight rebounds and Vasturia 15 to go with a game-high seven assists.
Beachem and Farrell combined to drain 9 of 21 three-point attempts. Farrell hit a pair on consecutive trips that turned a six-point deficit into a tied contest at 59 apiece with 12:50 remaining.
“He senses when we need it and he’s been that assassin for us all year.”
Farrell let the Eagles and most of the Conte Forum know about his exploits thereafter.
“Just trying to get guys going,” said Brey of Farrell’s show of emotion during Notre Dame’s comeback. “We need Bonz doing that too. Guys getting excited, having fun. It brings up the energy on the bench. Just trying to get people to smile and have fun.
In the end, they had fun because they did what they do best: hit big shots, including the freebies afforded to the teams throughout every contest.
“Rex Pflueger got his hand on a big offensive rebound and what we’ve done, again, we made big free throws,” Brey noted. “We were 19-of-21, we lead the nation (81.2 percent), and it’s an unbelievable weapon when we get in the bonus.”
Pflueger’s tipped rebound landed in Beachem’s hands and the latter sealed the proceedings with a pair of free throws at the 25-second mark to provide an 80-76 cushion. Vasturia and Colson followed with a pair apiece thereafter.
Former starter Martinas Geben played one minute last night and the Irish were outscored by four points in that span. Sophomore shooter Matt Ryan played just six minutes and hit a three-point basket – yet the visitors were outscored by eight points during his time on the court.
Webster’s dictionary defines “trust” as “firm belief in the reliability…ability, or strength of someone or something.”
It’s no wonder Brey favors his four best players and the two guards – Pflueger and T.J. Gibbs – that generally accompany them.
The Irish did, however, receive a boost from January spark plug Austin Torres. The senior didn’t score in 13 minutes of action but Notre Dame sure did and Boston College basically didn’t – the Irish outscored the Eagles by 11 aggregate points during his 13 minutes on the court.
“We went to two big guys and played zone,” said Brey of Notre Dame’s best defensive spurt, one that included Torres.
In the squad’s previous four contests, Torres has posted the following plus/minus totals: -4, -1, -9, and -16. They lost twice and had to come back (without Torres) to win a third.
But Torres’ defense, hustle, bounce and relative athleticism aids the Irish more than Geben’s defensive post size, free throw accuracy, and ability to finish a pick-and-roll. (Geben hasn’t posted a positive plus/minus since a January 12 blowout win over Syracuse when he posted a stunning plus-15 over 17 quality minutes.)
Two big men will be necessary for stretches against most of the ACC and likely anyone the Irish will face outside of the opening game of their NCAA Tournament draw.
Torres appears the lesser of two evils – and perhaps one that can continue to spark the Irish in spurts.