Dirty work key for Notre Dame in victory over Michigan State

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Dirty work can change the complexion of a basketball game.

It did Wednesday night.

Rebounds? Overrated. Who needs them?

When Notre Dame can lose the board battle by 17 and still walk away from Michigan State with a 79-78 overtime victory, there must be an equalizer.

It’s called hustle, guts and downright determination. Dive for the loose ball. Slash through the maze of bodies to come up with a rare rebound. Set the ball-screen and hope for the best.

“I just love the fact that our will to chase down…,” Irish coach Mike Brey said, then did a cross-over and changed his direction. “It became like a playground, man. You want to win the game, stay in the game and stay next instead of losing, where you don’t play the rest of the afternoon.

“We were just going for stuff. There was not much semblance of defensive balance. Go get the ball. We picked up a couple fouls that way with our nose for the ball, which was really a key.”

None of the Irish were timid about getting their hands dirty.

Pat Connaughton, struggling through a miserable (3-of-11, 1-of-6 from 3-point) offensive night, was a brilliant battler. Eight rebounds, two steals and a frustratingly efficient defensive effort were contributions that made an impact.

Don’t forget the smack in the mouth he took while coming up with an offensive rebound.

“We didn’t shoot the ball from 3 (7-of-23 as a team) as well as we usually do,” said Connaughton. “But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the defense. It’s about things we wouldn’t necessarily do last year that got us this win.

“(Struggling with the shot) may have affected me last year. One thing I’ve really focused on this year is to not let the bad offense, or missed shots I should have made, or rimming out some shots, or (shots that) may have gone in on other nights… Not letting that get to me.

“I used to let it get to me because I wanted it so bad last year. This year, I know the team needs me across the board. Whether the shots aren’t going down, there are still things that could be done to help the team win. The tough little plays; the defense; the rebounds… Whatever it may be. Staying aggressive, so we can get these other guys shots who might happen to be hitting.”

“He’s harder on himself,” Brey said of Connaughton. “He’s our captain. There’s pressure on him to lead and be a rock.”

That rock was a stabilizing influence for some pretty hairy moments.

On Notre Dame’s first possession of the overtime, Steve Vasturia launched a 3-pointer that missed the mark. While the Spartans waited for yet another rebound to settle in their paws, Demetrius Jackson slashed through the middle of the green pack, snatched the ball and was fouled.

Two successful free throws later, the Irish had the momentum they needed.

“That’s just part of our team; part of our identity; flying around, trying to make plays, getting on loose balls,” Jackson said. “Those are the things that are going to help us win games.”

Next Irish trip downcourt, game tied at 69. Connaughton got a clean look, but again came up empty on a 3. This time, it was Austin Torres who wiggled his slender 6-foot-7 frame among the tall timber from East Lansing and got the put-back for another Notre Dame two-point lead.

“It’s a mentality,” Torres said. “Do my role, that’s what’s going to keep me on the floor.

“We’ve gotta make sure we’re going to scrap as much as we can. When things aren’t going our way, we have to continue to do our best to get our ball.”

With just over a minute left in the extra period, another missed 3-pointer, this one from Jackson, was secured by Jerian Grant, who was fouled in the process. His two free throws got the lead back to five.

Nothing fancy. Nothing pretty. Just hard work and positive results.

How big was this win? Wait a few months to see what the Spartans are really made of.

Until then, feel good about the way it happened.

Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton (24) reaches for the ball next to Michigan State’s Gavin Schilling (34) during the Notre Dame-Michigan State men's basketball game on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Michigan State’s Matt Costello (10) reaches for the ball during the Notre Dame-Michigan State men's basketball game on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN