Road swagger fits Notre Dame men's basketball at Illinois

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Stoic and ridiculously solid during his 37 minutes on the basketball court Wednesday, then still all business in front of the television cameras and microphones afterward, Notre Dame junior guard Demetrius Jackson finally allowed himself to smile.

Descending a back staircase that led to the Irish locker room in an arena that nearly became his college basketball home, the guard let down his guard, if only for an instant, and admitted that this one was big.

Really big.

Jackson made all five of his shots in the second half, when he scored 17 of his 21 points, to lead Notre Dame (5-2) back from a 10-point deficit in an 84-79 victory over Illinois (3-5) at State Farm Center in the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

"I was just playing my game," Jackson said. "I just made more shots, not letting the first half affect my second half, not letting my defense affect my offense and just stepping up.

"I was able to get some good looks. It was just up to me to step up and knock those down."

That Jackson helped the Irish regain their road bearings after having lost two of their previous three was most important to the captain. But the fact that the former McDonald's High School All-American played well - really well - against the school that came in second for his services, well, that just made his evening.

This meant a lot to him. He delivered in a big way with his play.

"I'm very proud of him," said Irish coach Mike Brey. "There was a lot of side stuff with them recruiting him and he played like that in the first half."

Not in the second. At least, after the start.

Down eight at the break, the Irish looked to be in some serious trouble early in the second  half. less than two minutes in, Notre Dame fell into a double-digit hole for the third time in its last four games. Less than three minutes in, Jackson was tagged for his third foul. It looked to be danger time.

Not quite.

Jackson simply rotated away from the ball and let sophomore guard Matt Farrell handle the heavy lifting of getting the Irish into their offense. When he wasn't finding Jackson in his sweet spots, he was getting the ball to fellow guard Steve Vasturia, who scored a career-high 21 points.

"Just taking what the defense gives you," Vasturia said. "We have so many options on our team offensively, anybody can score any given night.

"I'm just trying to pick my spots."

Farrell added 10 points in 23 minutes, both career-bests.

"That's something I'm still trying to find out, my role," Farrell said. "When I got in there early, I wanted to be aggressive, get in the lane, finish what I could.

"I thought we flowed much better."

Turns out the best scenario for Notre Dame to finally find some much-needed rhythm on both ends was Jackson getting into foul trouble. Jackson's lay-in, part run that saw him score eight of 10 points in a key Irish run, bumped the visitors into the lead for good, 51-49, with 11:49 remaining.

"That's when he got going," Brey said.

Notre Dame led by as many as 14.

Zach Auguste registered his fifth double-double for points (16) and rebounds (14) in the first seven games.

Wiith Farrell running the offense, Jackson did some serious work in hunting his shot. That included a mid-range jumper and a wing 3, after which he yelled “Ahhhhh!” to the Irish bench. The mid-range shot put the visitors up 10; the 3 put them up 12.

But the reaction to both was an indication that Jackson was cooking.

"That's the key," he said of his emotional outburst.

Notre Dame lost at Iowa in its first Big Ten/ACC Challenge in 2013, before beating Michigan State at home in overtime last season.

With the offense in a flow, the Irish fell back into the same 2-3 zone defense that basically cost them the game some 72 hours earlier against Alabama in the fifth-place game of the AdovCare Invitational in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Notre Dame couldn't guard much in it on Sunday, but Brey was determined that the Irish were going to play it Wednesday.

The stayed in zone the entire second half.

Notre Dame needed to do something to cool hot shooting that saw Illinois connect on half their shots in the first half. The Illini returned to miss all but three of their first 20 shots in the second half.

"Fifty percent from the floor? I mean, come on guys," Brey said. "My feeling was, I think we gotta change the whole look up and we're going to play zone and we're either going to come back and win or we may lose by 18."

As well as Illinois worked the first half, the second was a struggle from start to finish. Especially the start.

"I didn't like our start to the second half," said Illini coach John Groce.

Wednesday was the first game in the new-look State Farm Center (previously long known as Assembly Hall) this season for the Illini, who played their first four “home” games 85 miles away in Springfield.

Playing away from home – and playing well – was something that didn’t faze last season’s Irish. Of Notre Dame’s 32 victories, nearly half – 15 – came on either neutral courts or visit venues. Notre Dame won at North Carolina. It won at North Carolina State. And Clemson. And Louisville. Hostile road atmospheres, except for Cameron Indoor Stadium, mattered little.

They were, to borrow a term adopted early in Brey's Irish tenure “Road Dawgs.”

Those "dawgs" rediscovered some of their bite Wednesday.

Brey went only two deep in his bench the first half, but mixed and matched plenty trying to find a combination that clicked. Go big? Go small? Little of both? V.J. Beachem was seated at the scorer’s table at one point when Brey yelled to him to replace Farrell.

Not a possession later, Farrell scored on a drive and free throw. Brey then barked back to Beachem.

“Get Steve (Vasturia)!”

Vasturia was a steady scorer for much of the opening 20 minutes. He went for 11 the first 12 minutes, including five-straight that allowed the Irish to open a three-point lead with just under eight minutes remaining.

The Irish then went another long stretch – three minutes – without a basket. That allowed the Illini to open their largest lead of eight points, which they carried to the locker room before the halftime ceremony dedicating the State Farm Center court to former Illinois coach Lou Henson.

Wednesday capped a stretch of four games in seven days for Notre Dame, which didn’t arrive back from Central Florida until after 3 a.m. Monday before turning right around and heading for Illinois following Tuesday’s practice. The Irish are off from game action until Tuesday’s game against another mid-major challenge – Stony Brook. But there will be little time to kick the feet up and relax.

Brey indicated Tuesday that Notre Dame will return to a training camp mentality this weekend. That will include two-a-day practices when all aspects of the program – the rotation, defensive and offensive tendencies, strengths, weaknesses -- would be open to evaluation, win or lose against Illinois.

Brey stressed Tuesday that Notre Dame needs practice reps – a lot of them. So much so that the typical game day shoot-around Wednesday was bypassed in favor of a spirited practice that ran 90 minutes and left personnel floating around the State Farm Center what exactly the Irish were doing.

Brey knew.

Maybe that would get the Irish going in the right direction.

It did.

"It's a fabulous win for this team as we're searching for an identity," Brey said. "I love how we bounced back.

"It's a great growth night for this particular team."

NOTRE DAME (5-2): Beachem 3-8 0-0 9, Jackson 6-10 6-8 21, Auguste 6-13 4-7 16, Vasturia 9-14 0-0 21, Colson 2-4 0-0 4, Torres 0-0 0-0 0, Ryan 1-2 0-0 3, Farrell 2-5 6-7 10. Totals 29-56 16-22 84.

ILLINOIS (3-5): Lewis 3-6 0-0 7, Black 1-7 0-0 2, Hill 6-10 5-5 19, Morgan 3-6 0-0 6, Nunn 5-16 1-2 13, Tate 0-1 0-0 0, Coleman-Lands 5-11 0-0 14, Jordan 1-2 0-0 3, Finke 5-7 2-2 13, Austin 1-5 0-0 2. Totals 30-71 8-9 79.

Halftime--Illinois 41-33. 3-Point Goals--Notre Dame 10-20 (Jackson 3-4, Vasturia 3-5, Beachem 3-6, Ryan 1-2, Colson 0-1, Farrell 0-2), Illinois 11-29 (Coleman-Lands 4-10, Hill 2-3, Nunn 2-11, Jordan 1-1, Finke 1-1, Lewis 1-1, Austin 0-2). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Notre Dame 35 (Auguste 14), Illinois 33 (Black, Nunn 7). Assists--Notre Dame 13 (Auguste, Jackson 4), Illinois 15 (Tate 6). Total Fouls--Notre Dame 14, Illinois 20. A--14,953.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Illinois forward Leron Black (12) center, fights for the ball between Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson (11) and Notre Dame guard Steve Vasturia (32) in the first half of an NCAA College basketball game at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill., on Wednesday Dec. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Rick Danzl)