Game situations good for Notre Dame hoops

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It remains one of the constants on every practice plan for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team, right there with stretching, the three-man weave and free throws.

Dealing with three or four different game situations every day is mandatory. The Irish might be required to defend while up one, execute on offense while down one, do it against man or do it against zone. Then inbound the ball against pressure, or make a free throw at a key juncture.

That way when it gets to game situations in actual games, the Irish have already seen and solved the scenario. It’s always been that way during coach Mike Brey’s 15 seasons on the sideline in South Bend.

During Brey’s first year (2000-01), Notre Dame found itself in a one-possession game in the closing seconds at Vanderbilt. Huddled on the baseline where the benches are located in historic Memorial Gymnasium, former Irish power forward Ryan Humphrey assessed the situation, looked at the time remaining (14 seconds) and reminded his teammates that they had just worked through the same type of situation in practice days earlier.

Even the score – 77-74 - was the same.

Notre Dame switched and switched and switched again on defense, just as it did in practicing game situations, and got the win after Troy Murphy blocked a late 3-pointer.

One reason the No. 12 Irish (17-2, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) are off to their best start since 1978-79, have lost once in the last 57 days and are knocking on the door of their first Top 10 ranking since 2010-11, is that they’ve been really good at solving game situations.

“There’s a comfort level because we rep it in practice,” Brey said.

It paid off Jan. 3 at home against Georgia Tech when Notre Dame had to defend the final possession of regulation to force overtime. The Irish eventually won in double overtime. It paid off some 50 hours later at North Carolina when Notre Dame needed a stop, a defensive rebound, a basket and another stop in the closing 67 seconds to win for the first time in Chapel Hill.

It paid off again Wednesday in the rematch against Georgia Tech when Notre Dame needed a few stops and a big bucket from closer Jerian Grant in the final minute to win 62-59. And it paid off again Saturday at home against Miami (Fla.). Only this one followed a different game-situation script.

For the Irish to avoid losing a second-straight league home game and win for the 13th time in their last 14 games, they would have to find a way to erase a 12-point deficit (which tied their largest of the season) with 15 minutes remaining.

Notre Dame did it for a 75-70 victory because it’s even done that during afternoon workouts. Really.

“We practice situations like that, game situations when we’re down 10 with five minutes left and we have to come back no matter what,” said sophomore guard V.J. Beachem, who brought a 13-point boost in 31 minutes off the bench. “It was nothing new to us.”

Been there, too

The way Notre Dame emptied the low post and basically went with five guards for the final 15 minutes in an ACC game Saturday looked awfully familiar.

Just over a year ago, again at home and in league play, Notre Dame worked without a true interior presence for its first-ever ACC win over perennial power Duke.

Like the Blue Devils, the Hurricanes had no answer when the Irish went small. Notre Dame tried to operate much of Saturday with either junior power forward Zach Auguste or freshman Bonzie Colson in the post, but when that didn’t work, another way was needed.

The Irish found it with five guards.

“We had to figure out the way we were going to attack,” said sophomore guard Steve Vasturia, who scored nine of his 11 points the final 9:30. “Once we did, everybody stayed confident. Nobody got rattled.”

Not even after the Irish labored to make two of their first 16 shots from 3. Going with a perimeter-heavy offense, they knew they needed to make some shots over the top if they were to have a chance. Then they did. As Notre Dame ripped off a run in which it made seven of nine from 3, everything – driving lanes, passing lanes, cutting lanes – opened.

How open was the floor? When the Hurricanes finally sat big man Tonye Jekiri to counter the Irish lineup, the 6-foot-6 Vasturia found himself posting up in the paint. He finished with a pseudo-sky hook, the first time he’s done something like that since his high school days back in Philadelphia.

“That was nice; that’s Patty’s move,” Vasturia said of Connaughton’s signature hook/flip shot. “I was trying to copy off of him.”

Two minutes after Vasturia’s hook, Connaughton made one of his own.

Determined defense

With that guard-heavy lineup, the Irish to shoot 57.1 percent from the field and scored 46 points in the second half. It also allowed Notre Dame to lock in and get the necessary stops – something that wasn’t happening early – to keep Miami off-balance.

During one key second-half stretch in which the Irish ripped off a 21-7 burst to flip a 12-point deficit to a two-point lead, the Hurricanes were held to one basket in 5:12.

That’s the new and vastly-improved Irish defense.

“We have an edge about us on the defensive end,” said senior captain Pat Connaughton. “We didn’t feel like we defended well last year. We got pushed around. We don’t want that reputation in the ACC.”

Connaughton admitted that every league game isn’t just a matter of winning or losing, but also a test of toughness.

“It’s a matter of digging in and doing the tough things you have to do to win games,” he said.

Tunnel vision

Falling down by a dozen points on their home floor in a league game didn’t sit well with the Irish, but not everybody in a white uniform was aware of the scoreboard.

“I didn’t even know we were down 12 to be honest,” said sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson.

What Jackson did know was that the energy level on both ends needed to be better if the Irish wanted to end the day on the right end of the score. He demanded in huddles it be better, because he knew it would be.

“When we’re down, we’re not wondering,” Jackson said. “We’re kind of mad that we’ve got to pick it up and be more intense. Guys are never doubting, never wondering.

“We just keep plugging.”

Board work

With no big man on the floor the final 15 minutes of Saturday’s second half, it reached a point where the 6-5 Connaughton looked around and figured that he would have to go and get every missed shot for the Irish.

In other words, keep doing what he’s always done.

“I try to think that way all the time,” said Connaughton, who had a team-high 11 rebounds for his fifth double-double for points and rebounds this season, the 12th of his career. “When you go up against guys who are 7-feet tall and guys that can jump out of the gym like Miami has, you find a body and then explode off the floor.

“I pride myself on that and I wanted to show that I could do that.”

Connaughton also showed that he could be a rim protector. Early in the second half, the 7-foot Jekiri looked like he had an easy lay-in. Connaughton sailed over from the weak side and blocked the shot.

Role model

Saturday’s induction of former Notre Dame forward Tommy Hawkins into the school’s Ring of Honor brought back many memories, and many former players, to campus, including former Irish forward and DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School graduate Sid Catlett, who visited Friday with Brey, another former Stag.

Catlett shared with Brey his thoughts on what Hawkins, the first African-American All-American at Notre Dame, meant to him. There were days during Catlett’s college years where he’d wake up in his dorm room, see snow falling outside his window and wonder if he really needed to make it to his 8 a.m. class that day. Then he’d say to himself that if Tommy Hawkins could do everything needed to earn a Notre Dame degree, so could Catlett. He’d then hustle off to class.

“That’s pretty powerful,” Brey said.

Baseline bits

• Notre Dame has finally relinquished its hold as the best shooting team in the land. The Irish (52.8 percent) are ranked second in the nation behind Gonzaga (53.0). Notre Dame ranks No. 1 in the country for assist/turnover ratio (1.69), fifth in scoring margin (+19.2) and 11th in scoring offense (81.7).

• The Irish lead the ACC in six different statistical categories and rank among the top three in 10 others.

• Out-rebounded in three of the previous four games, the Irish won Saturday’s rebounding battle, 33-32.

• For the second-straight game, and only the second time all season, Notre Dame did not have a dunk Saturday. Unofficially, the Irish have 71 this season.

• Notre Dame has trailed by double digits in four of its last five league games, including each of the last three home games. The only time it didn’t trail by at least 10 was Jan. 5 at North Carolina. The Irish are 3-1 in the four league games they've trailed by at least 10.

• The Irish are 5-1 in league play for the first time since starting 6-1 in 2002-03.

• Saturday was career game No. 100 for Grant, who has started all but two.

• According to ESPN.com., the Irish own a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 40 and a Strength of Schedule (SOS) of 180. The Sagarin Ratings have Notre Dame’s numbers at 11 (RPI) and 239 (SOS).

• Notre Dame plays its next two league games, starting Thursday at Virginia Tech, and three of its next four on the road, where the Irish are 2-0.

Last word

“No one shoots the ball like Notre Dame.”

-Miami guard Sheldon McClellan.

Working on specific game situations in practices has allowed No. 12 Notre Dame to be really good at them when it really matters.SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ