Notre Dame becomes cruel competitors, beats No. 13 Louisville

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Two really good former Notre Dame guards occupied a pair of prime seats in the front row across from the Irish bench for Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference showdown against No. 13 Louisville.

Two more former Irish floor leaders were seated nearby in the second row.

Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant (front row) and Chris Thomas and David Rivers (second row) had clear views of two current Irish guards who were really good as Notre Dame again overcame long league odds on its home floor.

Demetrius Jackson scored a game-high 27 points, which matched his career best, while Steve Vasturia added 20 including a big second-half burst. That work from the junior captains helped Notre Dame erase an 11-point home deficit against a ranked team for the second-straight Saturday before a third-straight league win, 71-66.

“They’re great; they’re great on both ends of the floor, too,” senior power forward Zach Auguste said of Jackson and Vasturia. “’Meech’ is a great quarterback and Steve brings it every night.

“With great guys and great leaders like that, we’re hard to guard.”

And hard to beat.

“My two guys, they were fabulous,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “Demetrius was off the charts. Steve Vasturia, just fabulous and clutch.”

Nearing NCAA tournament lock status while continuing to make a serious push for a regular-season conference championship, Notre Dame improves to 18-7, 9-4 in the ACC following its eighth league win in the last 10 games. Ten days earlier following a loss at Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame headed home 6-4 faced with three really hard games.

Now the Irish are as confident and cohesive as they’ve been all year after big win after big win after big win.

“We have been really cruel competitors this past week,” Brey said. “One thing we have developed in the last week is an amazing will to win. We have some fearless guys and boy, it comes at just the right time.”

This one wasn’t going to be easy, but that’s OK with these Irish. They don’t do easy. They don’t want to do easy. Other than Jackson going for 20 points in the first 20 minutes, Notre Dame could do little right. Louisville’s defense made it a tough go, and the Cardinal offense continually found easy ways to get to the basket. A Chinanu Onuaku turnaround jumper less than five minutes into the second half dumped Notre Dame into an 11-point deficit, its largest of the afternoon.

Turns out the Irish had the Cardinals right where they wanted them. If this was going to follow the same script as the previous Saturday against then-No. 2 North Carolina when it was down 11 with 18 and change to go, Notre Dame was going to have to dig in and do the tough stuff.

And dig in and do it with the five starters.

It reached a point for the third-consecutive league game around the eight-minute mark of the second half that Brey stopped subbing freshmen Rex Pflueger and Matt Ryan, the only reserves to see action. He put it all on the starters, all of whom played at least 30 minutes. If this was going to be yet another memorable comeback, it was going to be delivered by that five.

They delivered.

Again.

“Man, have they finished it in style,” Brey said.

They got going off the determined drives of Vasturia, who broke loose for nine-straight points early in the second half to get this moving in the right direction. After watching Jackson do what he did in the first half, Vasturia knew he had to help his backcourt buddy with some serious heavy lifting.

“I wanted to attack the basket as well,” said Vasturia, who scored 15 points after intermission. “That really opened up everything in the second half. It was being aggressive. There were more lanes. I was able to put my head down more, create some contact and get to the line.”

Slowly, the Louisville lead started to melt away. It slid to seven following a Vasturia 3. It got to three following a big Jackson drive. It hit one on another Vasturia drive. And when Auguste rolled down the lane for a dunk, the Irish had their first lead since 27-26 after a 20-8 run, which featured seven straight, the comeback was complete.

Louisville answered to jump ahead for a possession, but there was no stopping this runaway Irish train. They were rolling. Again. And again, a crusher 3-pointer from V.J. Beachem would throw more gas on the comeback fire.

Seven days earlier with 7:22 left and Notre Dame down two to North Carolina, Beachem shrugged off a 1-for-8 shooting performance to deliver a big 3 and give the Irish a one-point lead. Hustling down the floor in transition Saturday following a Bonzie Colson block, Beachem again was 1-of-8, but with the Louisville defense scrambled, he was left all alone – for a step-in 3.

Beachem stepped in, shot it and started back-pedaling before the shot fell to give the Irish a 65-63 lead. Five minutes and 15 seconds remained. The Irish would never again trail.

“As soon as I let it go, I felt good about it,” Beachem said. “Demetrius found me early. I felt like, ‘Why not?’”

After racing away to 43 points in the first half, Louisville (19-6; 8-4) was held to 23 in the second. The Cardinals managed only four field goals the final 10:24.

“It was a tale of two halves,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. “You’ve got to give Notre Dame a lot of credit; they played a great second half. We played a great first half.

“Our defense was really good in the first half and not good in the second half.”

Yet, in many ways, the Irish won it with defense. A defense that was just better during winning time than the nation’s third-most efficient according to kenpom.com coming in. Notre Dame limited Louisville to 28 percent shooting in the second half. It won the all-important rebounding battle 41-29. They defended with purpose. They defended with passion. They defended.

“It was just digging in,” Jackson said. “We always find a way to win. Tonight we knew we could win it on defense. Once we get a lead, it’s about defending from there.

“Getting stops and runs, that’s what we do best.”

LOUISVILLE (19-6): Damion Lee 4-13 1-2 13, Quentin Snider 3-8 5-6 12, Trey Lewis 4-9 2-2 11, Jaylen Johnson 0-4 0-0 0, Chinanu Onuaku 3-6 0-0 6, Matz Stockman 2-2 2-2 6, Raymond Spalding 3-5 2-2 8, Anas Mahmoud 0-1 0-0 0, Deng Adel 0-0 0-0 0, Donovan Mitchell 4-9 0-0 10. Totals 23-57 12-14 66.

NOTRE DAME (18-7): V.J. Beachem 2-9 0-1 5, Demetrius Jackson 7-15 7-7 27, Zach Auguste 4-8 3-4 11, Steve Vasturia 8-13 2-2 20, Bonzie Colson 3-8 2-2 8, Rex Pflueger 0-3 0-0 0, Matt Ryan 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-56 14-16 71.

Halftime--Louisville 43-36. 3-Point Goals--Louisville 8-20 (Lee 4-9, Mitchell 2-4, Snider 1-3, Lewis 1-4), Notre Dame 9-22 (Jackson 6-12, Vasturia 2-4, Beachem 1-4, Pflueger 0-2). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Louisville 29 (Spalding 5), Notre Dame 40 (Auguste 12). Assists--Louisville 11 (Snider 4), Notre Dame 9 (Jackson 5). Total Fouls--Louisville 18, Notre Dame 10. A--9,149.

 tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson competes for a loose ball with Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell during Saturday's game.Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN