Steve Vasturia back in gear, good in Notre Dame men's basketball win

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Getting home for the holidays and away from the grind — even if he never did entirely separate from everything — helped Notre Dame junior guard Steve Vasturia again feel good about his game.

Typically as steady as a surgeon on the basketball court, Vasturia was uncharacteristically shaky and sluggish over the two games after final exams. He missed shots he normally made. He missed plays he normally made. He just didn’t look like himself. But five days home for Christmas to decompress helped him get back to what he does best.

Quietly, a little of everything.

Vasturia returned to that usual productive self on Tuesday in going for a game-high 17 points and a team-high four assists as Notre Dame closed non-conference play with a 73-56 victory over Liberty.

“I got some shots up, just stayed confident,” Vasturia said of his break. “It was good to get back to work.”

Notre Dame improved to 9-3. Liberty is 3-12.

Following Vasturia’s 1-of-7 shooting performance eight days earlier against Youngstown State, coach Mike Brey was asked what might help the Medford, N.J., native figure out his flow. Brey planned to do absolutely nothing extra with Vasturia. Forget about getting more shots up or watching more film. Brey figured the less he said to Vasturia, the more likely he was to bounce back. Besides, he had compensated for the shooting struggles against the Penguins with a career-best eight assists.

After connecting on four of 16 shots over the previous two games, Vasturia returned to hit five of seven.

“I don’t know what he did when he went home; I didn’t ask him,” Brey said. “He’s due and it was good to see.”

Vasturia did nothing out of the ordinary. He spent time with the family, and spent some time in the gym. Everything felt pretty much the same Tuesday as it did during the previous two games. There were no revelations about what was missing. No fixing his shot. No changing the release point. It was just about playing. And working.

“I just kept shooting,” Vasturia said. “And playing the way I play. You’ve just got to keep plugging.”

While Vasturia returned to form, senior power forward Zach Auguste again was his usual self. Auguste insisted in preseason that there’s no reason why he shouldn’t get at least 10 points and 10 rebounds every single night. He did it again Tuesday with 13 points and 14 rebounds, which tied his career high. It was his eighth double-double this season and 13th of his career.

Auguste had no idea he had tied his career high for rebounds.

“I should have beaten it,” he said. “I could have had a couple more, but I just wanted to rebound as well as I could and help the team win.”

Beyond the four turnovers in facing constant double-teams, Auguste remained engaged enough to keep tracking down loose balls, keep getting to the foul line and keep making his free throws (5-of-8).

“He was battling and making some plays,” Brey said. “I was really pleased overall with what he did. He was pretty good.”

Notre Dame busted this one open with a big burst to start the second half. The Irish stood around way too much and couldn’t take good care of the ball in the first half. Eight turnovers to five assists was the end result of playing against the same “Pack Line” defense perfected by Atlantic Coast Conference colleague Virginia. But they were better from the jump to start the final 20 minutes, and their advantage hit 20 only 69 seconds after intermission.

“We were standing still in the first half,” Vasturia said. “They did a good job clamping the post and that kind of got us stagnant.”

Notre Dame did a better job getting into its offensive sets in the second half. Vasturia twice found V.J. Beachem for 3s out of their motion set. That gave the Irish a whole lot more breathing room. They cut more. They moved better. They shot it.

Notre Dame scored 41 points, shot 58.3 percent from the field and 75 percent from 3 in the second half. It opened by hitting nine of its first 12 shots.

“We always strive to come on strong the second half,” said sophomore Bonzie Colson. “That’s what we did more in the second half more than the first.”

Liberty coach Ritchie McKay needed little additional prep time to familiarize himself with Notre Dame’s personnel. The associate head coach at Virginia the last six seasons, McKay was responsible for the Notre Dame scout the last two years. He knew well of Auguste and Vasturia and Demetrius Jackson. He also knew that even if the Flames could slow the Irish — who finished with a season low for points at home — there likely were too many weapons to stop.

“They can score from every position — inside, on the bounce and behind the arc,” McKay said. “It makes it a really difficult matchup. They have four or five guys that can be their leading scorer.

“They’ve got a very capable group.”

Six Irish have led the team in scoring this season.

Caleb Hornesley led the Flames with 18 points.

“When we schedule this game, I knew it was going to be hard,” McKay said. “As it approached, I wanted to cancel it. I was hoping the weather was really bad last night.”

Free throws have become a concern for Notre Dame. Brey often dismisses any notion that the Irish yips from the foul line will hang around for extended stretches. But they have. Notre Dame came into the contest ranked ninth in the league (69.4) from the foul line, then went 14-of-24 (58.3 percent).

Concern? Heck yes, especially with ACC season closing quickly.

“We’re going to have to be better,” Brey said, “or it’s going to be a cold winter.”

Notre Dame opens league play Saturday at No. 5 Virginia, which is a staggering 26-1 at home in ACC play over the last three years. Hello.

“The real bullets start flying now,” Brey said. “Here we go.”

LIBERTY (3-12): Maxwell 7-15 1-2 15, Kemrite 2-7 4-4 10, Cabbil 3-7 0-0 7, Dawson 1-8 1-2 3, Hiepler 0-0 0-0 0, Fields 0-1 0-0 0, Homesley 8-12 1-1 18, Reid 0-4 0-0 0, Atencia 0-0 0-0 0, Talbert 1-4 1-1 3. Totals 22-58 8-10 56.

 NOTRE DAME (9-3): Beachem 3-8 0-0 9, Auguste 4-6 5-8 13, Colson 3-6 1-2 7, Jackson 3-9 3-6 9, Vasturia 5-7 5-6 17, Pflueger 0-1 0-0 0, Torres 1-1 0-1 2, Ryan 2-6 0-1 6, Farrell 3-3 0-0 8, Burgett 0-0 0-0 0, Geben 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 25-48 14-24 73.

Halftime--Notre Dame 32-23. 3-Point Goals--Liberty 4-20 (Kemrite 2-7, Homesley 1-2, Cabbil 1-3, Talbert 0-2, Dawson 0-3, Reid 0-3), Notre Dame 9-20 (Beachem 3-6, Farrell 2-2, Vasturia 2-4, Ryan 2-6, Jackson 0-2). Fouled Out--Talbert. Rebounds--Liberty 29 (Kemrite, Maxwell 8), Notre Dame 35 (Auguste 14). Assists--Liberty 13 (Dawson 4), Notre Dame 14 (Vasturia 4). Total Fouls--Liberty 23, Notre Dame 13. A--8,837.

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Notre Dame power forward Zach Auguste drops in two more Tuesday against Liberty.SBT Photo courtesy/JOE RAYMOND