Steve Vasturia leads Irish to another runaway hoops win

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A more determined Steve Vasturia on the offensive end can be a very dangerous Steve Vasturia for the No. 25 Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

It’s something that Mount St. Mary’s found out early in Tuesday’s game at Purcell Pavilion.

Forget being so safe and so sound with the ball all the time. Vasturia was counseled by the coaching staff to be more aggressive, even take a risk here or a risky shot there. The team’s most consistent perimeter defender, put that coaching to good use against another overmatched non-conference opponent.

Averaging 8.0 points per game coming in, the sophomore scored a career-best 19 on a perfect night — 7-of-7 from the field, 3-of-3 from 3 and 2-of-2 from the free throw line in a 93-67 victory.

“We’ve created a monster,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “This is like the next step in the whole aggressiveness thing.”

Coming off scoring efforts of 10 points in Saturday’s victory over Fairleigh Dickinson and 12 in the overtime win last week over Michigan State, Vasturia has hit for double figures in three straight games, a first in his career.

“It was nice to make some shots early,” Vasturia said of his night’s work, which also included four rebounds, three assists and a blocked shot in 29 minutes. “It was nice to see the ball go through the rim.”

Zach Auguste and Jerian Grant each added 19 points. Demetrius Jackson had 15 before the starters spent a good chunk of the final five-plus minutes on the bench.

Auguste added a game-high eight rebounds to help with a 41-31 advantage on the backboard.

“We did a good job in 23,” Auguste said of the 2-3 zone the Irish were able to play (sometimes well, sometimes not) for long stretches. “We’ve been practicing that and did a great job rebounding and helping off the weak side.”

Vasturia worked much of the first half as if he was back dominating the Philadelphia Catholic League, where he earned most valuable player honors each of his final two seasons at St. Joseph’s Prep. Grabbing one of his three first-half defensive rebounds, Vasturia pushed the ball up the floor and surveyed the situation. There really was no reason. He took a few dribbles over halfcourt and pulled up for a 3-pointer to give the Irish a 27-18 lead. On the ensuing possession, Austin Torres grabbed a defensive rebound and fired an outlet to Vasturia. He again pushed the issue with his dribble into the frontcourt before again pulling up from 3 and another basket.

“My teammates have told me to be more aggressive, so just having the confidence from them is big,” Vasturia said.

Vasturia’s determination not only allowed him to get going, but seemingly everyone else. When the guy everyone looks to as the defensive stopper, the guy who knows his assignments and everyone else’s gets on a roll like that on the offensive end, watch out.

“It’s a game-changer,” Jackson said. “That’s one thing that’s been in the back of my mind – when we can get everyone to be aggressive, how dangerous a team we can be.”

A fifth consecutive win bumped Notre Dame’s record to 9-1 heading into Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference opener against Florida State. The Irish have won all eight home games by an average of 29.8 points. Wipe clean the one-point escape over Michigan State, and Notre Dame has won six home games by at least 26, four by at least 37.

This one seemingly came so easily on offense for the Irish, who entered as the nation’s top-shooting team (55.8 percent). They shot 59 percent from the field, 57.1 percent from 3.

Jackson dribbled between his legs in traffic on the way to the front of the rim and another layup. Vasturia took his defender off the dribble and delivered a running bank shot that dropped. Even Auguste got in on the act, zipping a bullet touch pass to Austin Burgett for a layup.

“We can be very scary when guys are playing like that and being aggressive,” Jackson said. “It makes it a fun game to play. To go out and play the game we love and play it like that, it makes it easy to play.”

Notre Dame ripped off scoring runs of 6-0, 8-0, 8-0, 9-0 and 12-0, the latter three part of a 30-4 run that ballooned a four-point lead to 30 before halftime.

“We were kind of flowing offensively,” Vasturia said. “The big thing was getting stops defensively and we were able to get out in the open court.”

How efficient was the effort? Notre Dame’ second-leading scorer Pat Connaughton battled early foul trouble and was 0-for-1 from the field with no points at half. The other four starters simply combined to shoot 20-of-31 (64.5 percent) in the first half.

“Everybody contributed,” Grant said.

Mount St. Mary’s (2-5) took 35 shots from 3 and made 13.

“They fire a lot of 3s, man,” Brey said. “And they threw some bombs in.”

Chris Martin hit a game-best five from 3 and led the Mountaineers with 19 points.

“We took it on the chin,” said coach Jaimion Christian.

Notre Dame climbed back into the national rankings the previous day for the first time in over a year. How would the Irish respond to the added attention? Just fine, thank you. The Irish shot 61.1 percent from the field, 55.6 percent from 3, scored 56 points and forced eight turnovers with seven steals in as dominant a first half as they’ve had all year, and they’ve had a few.

Notre Dame made sure to use the step back into the national ranking as a springboard into Saturday.

“For them, it was a confidence-building thing and that’s kind of how they played,” Brey said. “I think we’re smart enough to understand we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

MOUNT ST. MARY'S (2-5): Will Miller 4-10 1-2 12, Gregory Graves 0-2 1-2 1, Chris Martin 7-14 0-0 19, Junior Robinson 3-8 0-0 8, Kristijan Krajina 3-8 0-0 6, Mawdo Sallah 2-3 0-2 4, Byron Ashe 2-12 1-2 7, Khalid Nwandu 2-5 1-1 5, Liam McManimon 0-2 0-0 0, Charles Glover 0-2 0-0 0, Maalik Howard 1-1 0-0 3, Aaron Brown 0-0 0-0 0, Taylor Danaher 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 25-68 4-9 67.NOTRE DAME (9-1): Zach Auguste 7-12 5-7 19, Demetrius Jackson 6-10 1-1 15, Jerian Grant 8-13 0-0 19, Pat Connaughton 2-4 0-0 4, Steve Vasturia 7-7 2-2 19, Austin Torres 1-2 0-0 2, Matt Farrell 0-2 0-0 0, Eric Katenda 1-3 0-0 2, Austin Burgett 2-2 0-0 4, Matt Gregory 0-0 0-0 0, Martinas Geben 0-1 4-4 4, Bonzie Colson 2-5 1-2 5. Totals 36-61 13-16 93.Halftime--Notre Dame 52-27. 3-Point Goals--Mount St. Mary's 13-35 (Martin 5-9, Miller 3-8, Robinson 2-4, Ashe 2-8, Howard 1-1, Krajina 0-1, McManimon 0-2, Glover 0-2), Notre Dame 8-14 (Vasturia 3-3, Grant 3-7, Jackson 2-3, Connaughton 0-1). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Mount St. Mary's 31 (Sallah 5), Notre Dame 41 (Auguste 8). Assists--Mount St. Mary's 16 (Robinson 5), Notre Dame 16 (Grant, Jackson, Vasturia 3). Total Fouls--Mount St. Mary's 16, Notre Dame 8. A--6,647.

Notre Dame sophomore guard Steve Vasturia wants another chance to make a late play Monday against No. 19 North Carolina.SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ