Matt Farrell finds flow for Notre Dame men's basketball

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Something about the pyrotechnics display that fired near the Notre Dame bench prior to Wednesday’s game at Illinois didn’t sit well with sophomore guard Matt Farrell.

A key contributor for the first time in his career in a key college basketball game on the road, Farrell didn’t let that bother him before finding his role in the rotation and going for career-highs for points (10), rebounds (four) and minutes (23) in an 84-79 Irish victory in the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

But it was someone, not something, that lit the fuse for Farrell’s focus.

Teammate Demetrius Jackson carried that match.

Having to work against him every day in practice the past season-plus, Jackson knows what a handful Farrell can be when he’s looking for his shot, coming off screens, running the offense and aggressively getting to the basket. The first chance Farrell had to do that this season in extended minutes — last weekend at the AdvoCare Invitational down at Disney World — he played way too passively for his teammate’s liking.

Should he take an open shot? Pass? Drive? On one possession, Farrell passed up an open look. On the next, he took the shot and had it swatted back at him. Farrell’s mind often was too cluttered to compete. He was a non-factor in three games.

Heading into Wednesday, Jackson had been in Farrell’s ear to play the way he practices. To be aggressive. Fearless. Attacking. Himself.

“I wanted to be aggressive early, get in the lane, finish what I could and get my teammates involved,” Farrell said. “I thought I did a better job.”

At one point in the first half, Brey brought junior V.J. Beachem to the scorer’s table to sub in for Farrell. Next possession, Farrell drove decisively down the lane, drew a foul, made the basket and the subsequent free throw. And on the next stoppage in play, he stayed in the game after Brey reconsidered and told Beachem to get Steve Vasturia.

With 92 seconds left in the first half, Farrell drove the lane, came to a stop and lost his right shoe in the process. He tossed it aside near midcourt and played four possessions in just his white sock. Referee Ted Valentine, who retrieved the shoe during one trip down the court, handed it back to Farrell at a timeout with 46.5 seconds left.

A fan in the front row where the shoe landed after Farrell first tossed it was on him as time wound down.

“He was yelling at me; he wanted to keep the shoe,” Farrell said. “It was pretty funny.”

Staying with Farrell allowed Brey to find something he’s been seeking all season – a combination other than the starting five that clicks for long minutes. With Jackson in early foul trouble in the second half – he picked up his third with 17:29 remaining – Farrell assumed the majority of ball-handling duties.

An offense that erupted for 51 points on 57.1 percent shooting from the field and 60 percent from 3 ran through him. With Farrell making sure the Irish ran their stuff, Vasturia (career-high 21 points) and Jackson (17 of his 21 in the second half) busted loose and into good scoring grooves.

“What he did in the first half when we were dying, he kind of saved us,” Brey said of Farrell. “I’m saying to myself, he may be the answer. He’s another ball-handler who can just go out and handle, then Steve and D don’t have to handle all the time.

“He can make a shot and he’s improved defensively so we can keep him in longer. He continues to be very important for us.”

Wednesday was the first time Farrell’s been in the situation of playing major minutes on the road in a game that the Irish had to have. That he delivered was a big step, both for him and for the trust his teammates have in his game going forward.

“It’s good for my confidence,” Farrell said. “My teammates are always in my ear. I’m never one to get caught up in the crowd or anything like that.

“I just play my game, don’t worry about anything.”

As for those fireworks...

“That,” Farrell said, “was a little too much.”

Riding the wave

It was a wild 72-hour swing of emotions for Notre Dame, which returned to campus from Florida early Monday morning having lost two of three. That included Sunday’s game against Alabama, where senior captain Zach Auguste missed two free throws that would have given the Irish a three-point lead with 28.6 seconds remaining.

Notre Dame practiced on campus Monday and Tuesday before flying to Champaign, where the Irish scrimmaged — an all-out scrimmage — as part of a 90-minute practice on game day.

By late Wednesday, the Irish (5-2) have proven something to themselves in going on the road and delivering a gut-check effort.

“Man, we’re a great bounce-back team,” said Auguste, who bounced back from his missed free throws with 16 points and a game-high 14 rebounds for his fifth double double of the season and 10th of his career. “We get our hearts taken away from us down in Florida with a couple bad losses, but we came back and played great.

“It’s a testament to our maturity and our development as a team.”

Brey liked a whole lot of what he saw from a team that arrived wounded and wondering but left late Wednesday for home optimistic that they’ve found some answers while faced with adversity.

“It’s a good trait to have, getting a punch, bouncing back and winning,” Brey said.

Tables turned

At some point in Wednesday’s first half, after he watched Illinois singe the Irish by making 50 percent of their shots from the floor as five different players connected from 3, Brey thought about going to a 2-3 zone defense and how it sometimes spooks his team when they’re playing at home.

Why not see if it would throw the Illini off their game?

“My biggest fear is getting tight at home when teams zone us,” Brey said. “You flip it around. I love playing it on the road.”

Notre Dame utilized its length on the back line and the ability of Jackson and Vasturia to guard out of it to go zone for the final 18-plus minutes of the second half. Illinois never adjusted. The Illini missed nine of their first 10 shots and 15 of 17 the first 10 minutes of the second half. That allowed Notre Dame to flip an eight-point halftime deficit into a nine-point lead.

Illinois shot 35.1 percent from the floor, 35.3 percent from 3 in the second half.

The zone, while maybe not here to stay in the mold of Syracuse, will be handy in the coming months.

“We played solid defense,” Auguste said. “That’s something we’ve definitely got to look at and something we’ve grown with.”

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Notre Dame sophomore guard Matt Farrell grabs one of his career-high four rebounds during a career night in Wednesday's win at Illinois.AP Photo/RICK DANZL