Notre Dame edges VT as Zach Auguste rises to occasion

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – With Wednesday’s halftime clock nearing zero, Notre Dame power forward Zach Auguste gathered his guys under the east basket of Purcell Pavilion and took another big step as a leader in a big game.

The Irish then followed the senior captain’s words and work to victory.

Unable to get it in gear until it really mattered against a Virginia Tech team that kept coming, kept scoring, kept finding ways to figure it out, Notre Dame used a late burst of energy, emotion and execution to wrestle control and dodge a potential game-winning 3 for an 83-81 victory.

In a game that featured 10 ties, 14 lead changes, 44 fouls and a staggering 55 free throws, Notre Dame labored through a long stretch from late in the first half to late in the second without so much as a sniff of the lead. The Irish trailed for a total of 25:36, but when it came time to push it into another gear — a winning gear — they found it.

Auguste went for eight points and six rebounds in 16 first-half minutes, but missed three shots at the rim and turned it over twice. He fell down a few times. There were too many times when he looked too much in a hurry and needed to slow down. Needed to play with pace and poise and not be so flustered under pressure.

Auguste returned from the locker room having taken responsibility to be better, to get his teammates to play better. Earlier in the year, he might have stayed silent for that second half, but not this time.

“He was great at halftime, and it was a frustrating halftime.” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “And he was great throughout the second half, kind of being a calming guy, talking positively to guys.

“He really wanted it for his team, and he went and got it off the backboard to do it.”

When it was finished, and the Irish had improved to 13-5 overall, 4-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference with their third-straight league win, Auguste had a team-high 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting from the floor, and a career-high 15 rebounds.

It was the 10th double-double for points and rebounds for Auguste this season and the 15th of his career.

“I wanted, personally, to lead by example, be that senior leader,” Auguste said. “I wanted to remind them we were going to win this game, (that) we just can’t back down. We had to play like men.

“We had to be aggressive and have that swagger. I wanted to win the game.”

For the most part, when Auguste kept it easy, he made it look easy.

“Zach Auguste was unbelievable,” Brey said. “He was a force; he was all over the place.”

Augsute considered Wednesday a "bounce-back game" after struggling in Saturday's 95-91 win at Duke. He admitted that he's tired of being in bounce-back mode, especially in league play. He needs two, three good ones in a row.

"It's something I have to be more consistent at where I can just put that together day-in and day-out (performance) every night," he said.

Auguste had a whole lot of help on Wednesday night. With the game seemingly on the verge of getting away from Notre Dame — because of its inability to keep the visitors from gashing its defensive gut with one drive after another down the lane — the Irish guards decided they could do much of the same.

Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia were turned loose to put some of their own pressure on the Hokie defense. Both delivered in definitive ways as the Irish erased what at one time had been a nine-point deficit.

“We knew we were going to get good looks at the basket, because we had the whole second half,” Vasturia said. “We really just spread them out. It’s been really good for us.”

Notre Dame shot 54.8 percent from the field in the second half.

Jackson, who scored 18 points, went off four times over the final seven-plus minutes for big buckets off drives. His drive and free throw with 3:23 left gave the Irish their first lead (76-75) since 32-31 with four-plus minutes left in the first half. Vasturia, who added 14, scored seven big points the final six-plus minutes.

“Demetrius and Steve were fabulous driving at key times,” Brey said.

Their aggressiveness helped open up avenues for Auguste to work. It also allowed Notre Dame to best Virginia Tech’s 40 paint points with 44 of its own.

And just as it was in the previous ACC wins over Duke and Georgia Tech, Notre Dame had to do plenty of tough stuff to persevere.

“We know how to win close games,” Vasturia said. “We just gotta do it.”

That the Irish did, especially defensively with freshman guard Rex Pflueger again playing an important stopper role. Able to successfully slide his feet and get his hands up and chest on the Hokies, then stay in front of the guys he had to guard, Pflueger’s defensive doings helped the Irish withstand the Hokies’ 50.0 percent shooting, which included 55.2 percent in the first half.

“Rex Pflueger is so key for us,” Brey said. “What an energizing defender. He’ll only become more important.”

Jackson had a chance to put the Irish up four in the closing 10 seconds. But his drive foray into the lane and clean look at the rim didn’t drop. Shane Henry snatched the defensive rebound and got it to Seth Allen, who rushed it down the floor. As the fans in the stands came to their feet, Allen created enough space for a clean look at a 3-pointer, but the ball rattled in and out.

“It was literally the same scenario that happened on Saturday,” Hokies coach Buzz Williams said referring to his team’s win at Georgia Tech, when Allen was fouled going to the basket, then hit a free throw in the closing seconds. “It’s easily the best game that we’ve played on the road since we’ve been here.”

The loss dropped Virginia Tech to 12-7, 4-2. Zach LeDay led the Hokies with 22 points. Allen added 20.

Afterward, there was an exchange of words between Williams and Irish sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson following the traditional post-game handshake line.

“It was nothing,” Williams said. “I shook everybody’s hand, and I was walking off the court and he came to me, ‘Coach, you didn’t shake my hand. Well, I didn’t know where you were.’ ”

Brey insisted he had no idea what had happened.

“There was a lot of energy and emotion at the end of that game,” Brey said. “I don’t put a lot of stock in it. If we were disrespectful, I’ll handle that. I’m not sure if we were, but (we'll) investigate that.

“But I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep on it.”

VIRGINIA TECH (12-7): Shane Henry 4-4 3-7 11, Zach LeDay 7-11 6-7 22, Seth Allen 5-14 9-11 20, Justin Bibbs 5-10 0-0 12, Jalen Hudson 4-11 0-0 9, Justin Robinson 1-3 0-0 3, Devin Wilson 0-0 0-0 0, Satchel Pierce 0-0 0-0 0, Kerry Blackshear Jr. 1-1 2-2 4. Totals 27-54 20-27 81.

NOTRE DAME (13-5): VJ Beachem 3-9 0-2 8, Matt Ryan 1-4 1-2 4, Zach Auguste 8-11 6-10 22, Demetrius Jackson 7-11 3-3 18, Steve Vasturia 4-11 5-5 14, Rex Pflueger 1-3 0-0 2, Austin Torres 0-0 0-0 0, Matt Farrell 0-0 0-0 0, Bonzie Colson 5-8 5-6 15. Totals 29-57 20-28 83.

Halftime: Virginia Tech 45-37. 3-Point Goals: Virginia Tech 7-18 (LeDay 2-2, Bibbs 2-6, Hudson 1-2, Robinson 1-3, Allen 1-5), Notre Dame 5-17 (Beachem 2-5, Jackson 1-2, Ryan 1-4, Vasturia 1-4, Pflueger 0-2). Fouled Out: Blackshear Jr.. Rebounds: Virginia Tech 27 (Hudson 7), Notre Dame 35 (Auguste 15). Assists: Virginia Tech 14 (Allen 8), Notre Dame 10 (Vasturia 5). Total Fouls: Virginia Tech 24, Notre Dame 20. A: 7,888.

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Notre Dame power forward Zach Auguste celebrates after Virginia Tech's last-second 3-pointer didn't drop Wednesday at Purcell pavilion.Tribune Photo/GREG SWIERCZ