Beating Iowa a big step for Notre Dame men's basketball nucleus

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Staggered by a big body shot for a second straight second half, it reached a point late in Friday’s game where No. 17 Notre Dame just had to figure it out and win a close game.

In the process, the Irish may have found out something about themselves. Most importantly, that this is not last year’s team with an unshakable belief that it has a way out for every sticky situation.

This is a new group that believes it can be really good, but also understands that it’s going to take time. There will be questions, but the Irish are talented enough to find the answers, even if they have to deal with more early adversity than anyone expected.

One night after letting a big lead get away in the final 20 minutes of a loss to Monmouth, Notre Dame sidestepped potential disaster by getting itself pointed back in the right direction with big plays on both ends down the stretch for a 68-62 victory over Iowa in the AdvoCare Invitational at HP Field House on the grounds of Disney World.

“We took a pretty big punch there and that was a big test for us,” said junior guard Steve Vasturia. “We showed something today. To bounce back and finish strong was good for us.”

“We have that fight and determination,” said junior wing V.J. Beachem. “Good teams are going to make runs, but it was our defense that stopped their runs.”

Notre Dame (4-1) advances to meet Alabama (3-2), which beat reeling Wichita State, in the fifth-place game Sunday around 7:30 p.m.

“Getting out of Disney 2-1 after (Thursday) night?” Irish coach Mike Brey wondered. “Merry Christmas. It would be pretty good.”

Five Irish scored double figures led by Beachem. Heading into the tournament, no Notre Dame player had put more pressure on himself to deliver. The lights were brighter. The stage was bigger. Last time that was the case — in March — the lights were too bright.

Beachem had to do it this week, and has done so on consecutive nights. He went for 14 points and a career-high nine rebounds in the loss to Monmouth, then connected on four of nine from 3 for 16 points and five rebounds against Iowa.

“I want to try and build on it,” he said. “Gotta be ready to go.”

Beachem wasn’t the only wing to have a big night. On the fringe of being a main guy the season’s first four games, freshman Matt Ryan stepped into the sixth-man role Friday and ran with it. He played a career-high 26 minutes and scored a career-best 11 points.

Ryan was whistled for two quick fouls in barely three minutes, but stayed in the game and stayed engaged. And when the game again got tight late, Brey didn’t ride a veteran-heavy lineup as he did the previous night. He had the freshman handling the ball, making free throws and competing at crunch time.

Winning time.

He played like he belonged.

“It felt great,” Ryan said. “The whole game, I just felt comfortable. I went in and competed, found my spots. To be out there and become more comfortable, it just felt great.”

Second-half struggles again stung the Irish. One night after letting an eight-point halftime lead get away against Monmouth, Notre Dame failed to build on a lead that ballooned to 15 less than four minutes into the final 20.

Iowa unleashed a 16-0 run to take a one-point lead (47-46) with 10:06 remaining. Suddenly, what wasn’t a close contest for a good chunk of the first half — when Notre Dame flipped a seven-point deficit into a 17-point lead — became one.

Back to executing game situations.

Iowa again went up one (54-53) on a Jared Uthoff bucket with 3:57 remaining. Just when it seemed that the Irish might be on the verge of losing two-straight games — something last season’s team never did — they answered.

“A bunch of us have won close games before, but never this group, this nucleus,” said Vasturia. “It was big to be in those situations. It was a good step for our team.”

Uthoff led Iowa (3-2) with 20 points.

"We get some stops, we get some momentum," said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, who spent 11 years as a Notre Dame assistant. "We fought hard enough, but didn't close it out."

Notre Dame downshifted to its four-around-one perimeter-heavy offense by plugging Ryan in for senior power forward Zach Auguste. That got the Irish into a rhythm they had found so effortlessly in the first half, when they scored 39 points and shot 45.7 percent from the field.

Vasturia knocked in a 3. Bonzie Colson twice got to the bucket, rolling to the hoop in Auguste’s role. Demetrius Jackson delivered a devastating drive down the lane.

And just like that, with less than 90 seconds remaining, the Irish were up eight.

Notre Dame also delivered on the defensive end. The Irish were more aware of the 3-point line (Iowa hit just six of 24), more tuned in to the shooters, the cutters, the open floor. Transition defense was a rumor the previous night against Monmouth. Notre Dame held Iowa without a fast-break bucket.

And just as it seemed the Irish might have started to wonder where this was all going following Iowa’s 16-0 run, Notre Dame delivered a defensive kill — three stops in a row. That was a big sign to Brey that maybe, everything was going to be all right.

“What we did tonight was such growth,” Brey said. “They get the lead, but we get a kill and answered right back and stopped them and shut them down. Our defense won the game for us. That’s great growth for this group, man.”

THIS group. Not last year’s outfit that won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship and came within a basket of the Final Four. Last year was last year. It’s over. Done. Time for everyone to move on, especially the guys who helped that team go 32-6.

“They can’t keep comparing themselves to last year,” Brey said. “Like, this group has to develop itself. I’m still learning about us. I’m trying to figure us out.”

NOTRE DAME (4-1): V.J. Beachem 6-13 0-1 16, Demetrius Jackson 5-10 2-3 12, Zach Auguste 2-6 0-1 4, Steve Vasturia 4-11 2-2 11, Bonzie Colson 4-7 3-4 11, Austin Torres 0-0 0-0 0, Matt Ryan 3-5 3-4 11, Matt Farrell 1-3 0-0 3. Totals 25-55 10-15 68.

IOWA (3-2): Clemmons 1-3 0-0 3, Gesell 5-15 4-6 14, Jok 3-15 0-0 8, Uthoff 8-16 2-3 20, Woodbury 7-9 0-0 14, Wagner 0-1 0-0 0, Jones 0-2 0-0 0, Fleming 1-1 0-0 3, Williams 0-1 0-0 0, Ellingson 0-2 0-0 0, Uhl 0-0 0-0 0, Baer 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-66 6-9 62.

Halftime-Notre Dame 39-27. 3-Point Goals-Notre Dame 8-25 (Beachem 4-9, Ryan 2-4, Farrell 1-2, Vasturia 1-7, Jackson 0-3), Iowa 6-24 (Uthoff 2-5, Jok 2-9, Fleming 1-1, Clemmons 1-2, Jones 0-1, Baer 0-1, Ellingson 0-2, Gesell 0-3). Fouled Out-None. Rebounds-Notre Dame 36 (Auguste 11), Iowa 40 (Woodbury 10). Assists_Notre Dame 13 (Jackson, Vasturia 3), Iowa 13 (Gesell 9). Total Fouls-Notre Dame 15, Iowa 19. A-NA.

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Notre Dame guard Steve Vasturia drives hard to the hoop for a layup during Friday's victory over Iowa.AP Photo/WILLIE J. ALLEN Jr.