Irish hoops motivated for another shot against Tar Heels

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – A certain sequence that could have allowed him to deliver one of last season’s biggest shots still flashes through the mind of Notre Dame sophomore guard Steve Vasturia.

Limping into the regular-season finale at North Carolina, Notre Dame trailed by as many as 15 points and seemed on its way toward closing out its first Atlantic Coast Conference run without much of a fight against a Tar Heel team chugging fast and hard and confidently toward second place.

But back came the Irish on that Monday night in early March. They trimmed the double-digit deficit to single numbers, got it to a one-possession game and then took the lead seven minutes into the second half. North Carolina held a two-point lead with seconds remaining and needed one defensive stand to get out with the win.

Former Irish guard Eric Atkins drove it hard down the lane, and saw a sliver of daylight at the rim. What he didn’t see were two Tar Heel defenders merging, which left Vasturia alone in the far right corner across from the Irish bench.

One quick pass and Vasturia would have had a wide-open look from 3 and a potential Irish win in a place they have never won. Instead, Atkins had the shot swatted, and the Irish were handed league loss No. 12, 63-61.

“We played a great game there last year,” Vasturia said after going for 17 points after halftime of Saturday’s 83-76 double overtime victory over Georgia Tech. “Great atmosphere. I expect the same type of thing and we’re going to try and get this one.

“It’s going to be fun.”

As the teams prepare to meet again at the Smith Center and again on the back end of a Saturday-Monday league swing, the No. 14 Irish (14-1 overall, 2-0 ACC) enter their first true road game of the year confident after last year’s near-miss.

Notre Dame should be running on fumes following Saturday’s 50-minute marathon. Seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant played all 50 minutes. Fellow starters Demetrius Jackson (45 minutes) and Vasturia (42) also logged heavy minutes. There was a whole lot of effort and energy expended for consecutive win No. 10 and a second-straight league victory.

But the Irish refuse to use exhaustion as an excuse, and insist they’re energized enough to get back on the court some 50 hours after last leaving it back in South Bend. Sunday was more of a mental day for the Irish, who traveled to North Carolina late Saturday night. A workout was scheduled Sunday for the Smith Center, though there likely wasn’t much the Irish could do than get loose and get familiar with the floor.

“We’re not going to be running any block-out drills, I can tell you that much,” coach Mike Brey said.

Brey wondered whether the Irish might run the same play in Sunday’s workout for Vasturia.

“We felt we maybe left one on the table at Carolina last year,” Brey said. “We played really well in the second half, had a chance to win. The veteran guys want another chance in that venue.”

League play is all the Irish need to say to get ready.

“Man, we’ve just to reboot and go do it,” said power forward Zach Auguste.

What Notre Dame needs to address against No. 19 North Carolina (11-3, 1-0) is a problem area that’s been a concern since spring – interior defense and rebounding. Georgia Tech dropped a rebounding hammer on Notre Dame with 19 offensive rebounds that led to 17 second-chance points and 40 points in the paint. The Irish were able to get the necessary stops at the necessary times Saturday, but one reason the game went to an additional two sessions was the Irish inability to get a body on somebody and block out.

Once they got that size and strength under control, if only for a few possessions, the Irish were OK.

“We have an opportunity to win a lot of games,” Vasturia said, “especially if we focus in on the defensive end.”

The same type of size and athleticism is coming at them in waves Monday. North Carolina leads the league and ranks second nationally in total rebounds per game (45.2) and leads the league and ranks third nationally in offensive rebounds per game (16.7). The Heels are going to board and bang, bang and board.

That may force Brey to play more 2-3 matchup zone, though that’s a look that’s often led to good looks for the opposition. Notre Dame also may play bigger. The Irish have operated much of the season with only one true low-post player (Auguste, freshman Martinas Geben or sophomore Austin Torres) around four guards. Brey has toyed with the idea of pairing two bigs together for a few minutes. That would give the Irish more of some much-needed size but eliminate a guard/scorer/creator.

“I don’t want to give up the ship yet,” Brey said of his preferred four-around-one look. “We can get our guards down there to help us.”

Working through game situations has been a prime part of the practice plan since non-conference play ended Dec. 30. Brey just believes that many a conference contest will hinge on making the right play here, getting the right stop there. Get ready for hard, close contests, he counseled last week, the easy stuff’s over.

He was right when the Irish needed to find a way to figure it out Saturday. It may happen again Monday in the first of three visits this season to “the triangle” region.

Earlier in the fall, the Irish worked through a game situation eerily similar to the one that ended in the two-point loss to the Tar Heels. The scoreboard said that the starting unit trailed by two with 16 seconds remaining. Instead of Atkins making the decision what to do with the ball, it was Grant, the guy Brey considers his “ultimate creator.”

Like Atkins, Grant probed the lane with a dribble. Like with Atkins, the defense collapsed on him. But unlike Atkins, Grant already seemingly knew what was going to occur a play or two ahead. Once the defense collapsed to concentrate on his drive, Grant fired a pass to the corner, a pass that 10 months ago Vasturia never got. This time, it was Connaughton who camped in that spot.

Grant’s pass hit Connaughton right on point. He rose and released just before the horn sounded.

Nothing but net.

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

WHO: No. 14 Notre Dame (14-1 overall, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. No. 19 North Carolina (11-3, 1-0).

WHERE: Dean E. Smith Center (21,750), Chapel Hill, N.C.

WHEN: Monday at 7 p.m.


RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at

WORTH NOTING: Freshman Justin Jackson scored 13 points and Kennedy Meeks added 12 points and 12 rebounds as North Carolina won its ACC opener for the first time in three seasons, 74-50, Saturday night at Clemson. North Carolina led by as many as 25 points in the first half. The Tar Heels held the Tigers to 28.3 percent from the field, 23.1 percent from 3. … North Carolina starts ACC play with three of its first five at home, where it is 5-1. … Three starters return off last season’s team that finished 24-10, 13-5 and tied for third in the ACC. … North Carolina was picked this preseason to finish second to Duke and had 12 first-place votes. … The Tar Heels rank second in the ACC in field-goal percentage defense (34.8) and first in 3-point field goal percentage defense (24.9), which ranks third in the nation. … Guard Marcus Paige (13.6 ppg.) was the ACC preseason player of the year. … North Carolina went 10-3 in non-league play with losses to Butler, Iowa and Kentucky. The Tar Heels averaged 63.7 points in their losses. … Meeks has a league-best six double doubles for points and rebounds. … The Tar Heels have been ranked as high as No. 5. … Seventeen former Tar Heels were on opening-night NBA rosters; Notre Dame had none. … North Carolina has won five in a row, seven of eight and 10 of the last 12 to lead the all-time series 18-4. The Irish are 0-3 in Chapel Hill. … Monday marks the first time the teams meet as ranked teams in Chapel Hill since a 73-61 Irish loss on Jan. 26, 1986. North Carolina was ranked No. 1, Notre Dame was No. 16. … This is the lone regular-season meeting between the teams, who played twice last year. North Carolina won both, 73-62 in South Bend and 63-61 in Chapel Hill in the regular-season finale for the Irish. … This is Notre Dame’s first true road game. The Irish went 1-8 in league play and 1-9 overall on the road last season. …They are 1-4 in their last five true road openers with the lone win Jan. 7, 2013 at Cincinnati. … Jerian Grant scored 24 points and Steve Vasturia added 17 as Notre Dame beat Georgia Tech, 83-76, in double overtime Saturday. … Notre Dame returns home Saturday against No. 3 Virginia (13-0, 1-0).

WORTH QUOTING: “We’re going to take some punches. Can we stay poised and not panic and hang in there and not get out of character and do what we do?”

-Notre Dame coach Mike Brey on conference games.