V.J. Beachem big off bench as Notre Dame men coast

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Camped in a corner near the Notre Dame bench during another transition opportunity Wednesday, sophomore V.J. Beachem raised his right hand and waited for someone in a white jersey to find him.

A year ago when he was a freshman scrambling to figure out his role, figure out college basketball and still hit the occasional shot, Beachem might have watched as the ball went to the opposite side of the floor. Not this year.

Captain Pat Connaughton took a between-the-legs bounce pass from fellow senior Jerian Grant and rocketed it to Beachem, who delivered one of his five 3-pointers in a 104-67 Irish victory.

After scoring a combined 16 points in the first two games, Beachem erupted for a career-high 19. He was one of five Irish to score double figures in a game that saw the home team run away with the first 14 points and lead by as many as 46.

“I’m just a lot more comfortable on the court,” Beachem said. “Just relaxing, taking my time.”

Working in the sixth man role he cemented during a productive foreign tour of Italy in August, Beachem connected on seven of nine shots in 18 minutes. Almost all of those came without hesitation, something that would stifle some of his scoring opportunities last season.

“It’s a good feeling,” Beachem said of his production. “It’s taken a lot of hard work and a lot of trust from the guys. I know they trust me even more than they did last year.”

Getting sophomore Demetrius Jackson and junior power forward Zach Auguste to feel that they were main guys and important parts of the puzzle this year was offseason Job No. 1 for Irish coach Mike Brey. Not far behind was getting Beachem comfortable and confident in his role as sixth man, really, in the coach’s eye, his sixth starter.

Often when Brey substituted in Italy, Beachem was the first and only Irish into the game. The message? You and your role are needed. He delivered one night in Pesaro with key shots at key times to break open that one.

“We want him shooting the ball with confidence,” Brey said. “It’s nice when you play with a bunch of guys who can really find you. I love that he’s taking shots.”

Beachem had plenty of company among the bench guys who played well against a simply overmatched opponent. Freshman power forward Martinas Geben continued his solid early-season work with a career-high 12 points and six rebounds in 20 minutes. While Auguste continues to thrive as the starting low-post presence in a four-around-one look — he scored a career high (21) for the third time in as many games — Geben has been just as effective. When he’s in the game, he’s doing something well.

“My role is simple — rebound, defend screen,” Geben said. “Whenever I’m screening well, the guys are getting opportunities or they’re doubling my guy so I’m getting free passes and free layups underneath the basket.”

With sophomore Austin Burgett out with a sprained left ankle, freshman Bonzie Colson was bumped up into the rotation and logged a career-high 20 minutes. He finished with five points, three rebounds and two assists.

“It was important for Bonzie tonight to have some success,” Brey said. “For him to have some success in a game with the lights on can help him.”

Burgett is questionable for the weekend.

There’s been nothing questionable about Auguste early in his first year as a main guy. He made all nine of his field-goal attempts and all three of his free throws.

“I knew I was good with my free throws, but I didn’t realize I was perfect from the field,” Auguste said. “I have great teammates. They always find ways to get me the ball.”

Notre Dame (3-0) finished with 24 assists.

Lost in all the early-season talk and focus about how Notre Dame would defend this season is the fact that the Irish again can be pretty potent on the other end.

Notre Dame connected on its first nine shots and 13 of its first 14 to open a 20-point lead with nine minutes left in the first half. The Irish did so by ripping off scoring spurts of 11-0 and 9-0. Notre Dame led by 30 at halftime after shooting 71.4 percent (20-of-28) from the floor.

The Irish finished with 56 points in the paint and 41 bench points. They shot 65.6 percent from the field, 47.4 percent from 3 and 75 percent from the foul line.

“I love the fact that we got off to a really good start and were really ready to play,” Brey said. “I like that we can score that thing again.”

Notre Dame averaged 92.6 points in its first three games.

Such a lopsided score so early allowed Brey to experiment on several levels. After vowing to not have his two main handlers — Grant and Jackson — on the bench at the same time at any point this season, Brey had both on the bench in favor of others midway through the first half. And during the closing minutes of said half, the five Irish on the floor all were reserves.

Notre Dame also worked out of a 2-3 zone defense for the first time since really the end of last season. The second half also saw Auguste and Geben paired in the same five, also a first.

Coppin State (0-3) came to town having lost its first two games (Oregon and Illinois) by an average of 45 points. Arnold Fripp led the Eagles with 14 points.

“They’re balanced; they have a lot of size coming off that bench,” Coppin State coach Michael Grant said of Notre Dame. “When you’ve got your big guys that can knock down shots, that makes a huge difference.”

Notre Dame returns to action Saturday against Massachusetts (3-0), the first of two games in Uncasville, Conn., as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-off Tournament. The Irish return home Wednesday against Grambling State.


COPPIN ST. (0-3): Fripp 6-13 2-2 14, Fejokwu 4-7 0-1 8, Brickhouse 0-9 0-0 0, Cephas 4-9 0-0 11, Smith 4-8 0-0 12, Kessee 2-6 0-0 5, Simpson 0-2 0-0 0, Triggs 2-7 2-2 7, Josiah 3-6 0-0 6, Batts 2-5 0-0 4. Totals 27-72 4-5 67.

NOTRE DAME (3-0): Auguste 9-9 3-3 21, Jackson 5-8 0-0 10, Grant 7-11 0-0 15, Connaughton 3-5 2-2 8, Vasturia 3-6 0-0 9, Torres 1-2 2-2 4, Beachem 7-9 0-0 19, Farrell 0-1 0-0 0, Katenda 0-1 0-0 0, Gregory 0-0 1-2 1, Geben 3-4 6-9 12, Colson 2-5 1-2 5. Totals 40-61 15-20 104.

Halftime--Notre Dame 53-23. 3-Point Goals--Coppin St. 9-35 (Smith 4-7, Cephas 3-8, Kessee 1-4, Triggs 1-4, Josiah 0-2, Brickhouse 0-5, Fripp 0-5), Notre Dame 9-19 (Beachem 5-6, Vasturia 3-4, Grant 1-5, Colson 0-1, Farrell 0-1, Connaughton 0-2). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Coppin St. 25 (Fripp 4), Notre Dame 44 (Connaughton 12). Assists--Coppin St. 13 (Smith 4), Notre Dame 24 (Grant 8). Total Fouls--Coppin St. 15, Notre Dame 11. A--6,343.

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Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant drives up court as Coppin State guard Taariq Cephas defends during Wednesday's game at Purcell Pavilion. (South Bend Tribune Photo/Joe Raymond)
Notre Dame guards Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson take a break during ND's rout of Coppin State. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)