Austin Torres hustles way into Irish hoops rotation

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Aches and pains from the joints and the limbs and the muscles that cried out for the comfort of an ice bath after being stressed like never before never felt so good for Notre Dame sophomore power forward Austin Torres.

NCAA regulations stipulate that college basketball teams take off one day a week during the regular season. The time away always was the same for Torres last season. Sitting out to preserve a year of eligibility while he could grow his game and his mind for Notre Dame, he would use the time to catch up on school work, lift some weights and maybe shoot a few free throws late at night in an empty gym.

The next day, he’d be ready for practice even though he would spend the next game and the next and the next near the end of the bench watching, waiting and wondering.

Thursday was Notre Dame’s designated day off following a 79-78 overtime victory over No. 19 Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge the previous night. Torres planned to following his familiar routine, but with a twist.

He needed to rest his body, maybe submerge all 6-foot-7 and 228-pounds of it in a cold tub. That’s what happens less than 24 hours after logging a career-high 19 minutes in playing a key role in the victory.

“My body’s not used to all these minutes,” Torres admitted late Wednesday during his first-ever visit to the post-game interview area in the Irish locker room lounge.

An injury to sophomore sixth man V.J. Beachem, who will be out for at least a month following a plantar fascia tear in his right foot, created a massive void in the rotation heading into Notre Dame’s biggest test. Beachem was considered a sixth starter so someone needed to step in, grab his minutes and let everyone know it was going to be all right.

Junior power forward Austin Burgett had the first chance in the first half, but two fouls in 60 seconds Wednesday sent him back to the bench to a spot he would never leave. When a reserve big was needed in the second half, coach Mike Brey bypassed Burgett and freshman Martinas Geben, who has regularly worked as the seventh man in, for the active and energetic Torres, who started the season as the ninth man in a rotation that seldom slides past eight.

With starting power forward Zach Auguste laboring to get anything going, Brey needed someone with some size to do something. The Penn High School grad played a minute and change early in the second half before departing. He checked in with the Irish down six, and never checked back out. Torres played the final eight minutes of regulation and all five of overtime.

A career-high 27 points from guard Jerain Grant and a career-best 22 from guard Demetrius Jackson were big reasons why Notre Dame ran its record to 7-1 heading into Saturday’s home game against Farleigh Dickinson (8 p.m., no TV). But the Irish may not have won that game without Torres, who scored two points, grabbed four rebounds and did all the tough stuff.

Torres bodied up and banged around Branden Dawson. The Spartan big man finished with 16 points and 18 rebounds but managed only two points and two rebounds while guarded by Torres over the final 13 minutes. Torres also set screens to free Grant and Jackson. He competed. And when all that was complete, he found his way to the front of the rim for a rebound basket early in overtime that gave Notre Dame a lead it never relinquished.

“Fabulous,” Brey said afterward about Torres. “He gives us that athletic front-line guy. He understands his role – do the dirty work.”

Brey admitted that getting Torres more involved had been on his mind since the Nov. 23 loss to Providence when swingman LaDontae Henton erupted for a career-high 38 points. The Irish tried just about everybody in the starting lineup on the left-hander that day. They played man. They played some zone. Nothing worked.

Maybe the answer was a little deeper down the bench.

“We should have put him on Henton when he was crushing us,” Brey said of Torres.

Torres has since spent time in a white (starter’s) jersey in practice. It’s a long way from where he was in the spring, when Brey wondered if he might ever find a place in the program. He battled nagging injuries (knee, ankle) sitting out last season and never was able to consistently show he could offer much over the long haul.

Torres also had his doubts, and spent time discussing his concerns in the offseason with a sports psychologist.

The best tonic of all was the August foreign tour of Italy. Overseas, there was no worry about the rotation – everyone played and played a lot. There was no anxiety about the score – Notre Dame won its four games by an average of 44 points. It all gave Torres the freedom to just go and play and show the coaching staff that he could be that guy who cared more about competing than about his minutes, his shots or his points. He would hustle. He would defend. He would jump up and around trying to swat shots on one end, turn rebounds into dunks on the other.

If he was needed for only three minutes here, fine. Four minutes there? OK. He always was ready. By the end of the trip, Brey believed they had something to work with this season. All Torres needed was a chance.

That chance came Wednesday. He ran with it. He felt a part of it before, but he may be a big part of it going forward. Torres might work Saturday as the sixth man. Maybe the seventh. Or eighth. However it shakes out, and whenever his name is called, Torres is ready.

“My teammates have shown that they have confidence in me and Coach has shown he has confidence in me as well,” said Torres, averaging 1.7 points and 1.6 rebounds in 8.2 minutes. “When all that meshes together, it’s a lot less stressful.

“I proved I belong with Notre Dame basketball.”

Notre Dame sophomore Austin Torres (1) helped win Wednesday's game against Michigan State with his hustle.SBT Photo?ROBERT FRANKLIN