Game analysis: Notre Dame will sink or swim with starters, defense

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

WASHINGTON — Do it on defense and do it soon with the core personnel, or run the likelihood of getting run out of Verizon Center during quarterfinal play of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

For all the recent rhetoric about a quicker offensive tempo and the possibility of going eight, nine, 10 deep, how far Notre Dame ventures into college basketball’s most memorable month will be determined by two factors:

How well it defends and how hard the five main guys drive this train, one that was seemingly headed off the tracks in a hurry Thursday afternoon before picking up some serious steam.

The core five then found something that clicked on the defensive end to flip a seemingly certain blowout loss into an improbable 84-79 overtime victory for No. 4 seed Notre Dame (21-10) over No. 5 Duke (23-10).

“It starts with our leadership,” said senior power forward Zach Auguste, who delivered a massive effort of 19 points and a career-high 22 rebounds. “Not putting our heads down, focusing on what we needed to win and then strapping down and doing it, executing.”

Notre Dame advances to Friday night’s semifinal against top seed North Carolina (26-6), a team it has beaten three straight times, each in a different venue. But Carolina was furthest on the mind of anyone Irish less than nine minutes through the second half.

Down 16 with 11:05 remaining, Notre Dame figured it just had to be tougher. Better. Together. Now.

“That’s what it came down to,” said junior guard Steve Vasturia. “We had to get stops, just people battling.

“It was a gutsy game.”

Guts helped the Irish run away with this one right out from under the nose of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and the broken nose of Warsaw, Ind., product Marshall Plumlee. The run turned the arena into as pro-Irish that a building 600 miles from ND's campus can be.

Before a comeback that featured a 14-0 run commenced, Irish coach Mike Brey already had started working through the possible postgame speeches in his mind. Might be good to lose now, get home and get some rest, he would tell his guys. A good chance to get ready for the other tournament, the one that means everything.

But as Brey was flipping through his scripts, his five starters — who know well what it feels like to cut down ACC tournament nets and wear championship T-shirts — were plotting something else.

Something nobody saw coming.

The run.

“It was up to us to get the job done,” junior swingman V.J. Beachem said after chipping in with 19 points.

During one timeout as the Irish deficit seemingly was headed quickly toward 20, the starters gathered and talked amongst themselves. Beachem was going to hit some big shots. Auguste was going to grab every rebound. Bonzie Colson would be Bonzie Colson, and Vasturia and Demetrius Jackson, both shaky early, would return to their usual steady selves.

The comeback starts now, they promised. And it starts with defense.

Everything then fell into place. For the final 10:14 of regulation, no other Irish player checked into the game.

This was the starters' game to get. They went and got it.

Having played a big helping of zone, the Irish switched to man and just got after it. They swarmed. They switched. They gang-rebounded. They produced stop after stop after stop.

“We said, ‘Listen, this is what we’ve got to do; we’ve got nothing to lose,’” Auguste said. “It was do or die.”

The Irish then did.

“That was big,” Brey said. “Their life was flashing before their eyes. They really dug in. “We certainly can play it when we want to play it.

“It’s time to do it now.”

Notre Dame held Duke to 30 percent shooting from the floor, 28.6 percent from 3 in the second half. Those numbers slid even further south in overtime — 20 percent for both.

Hello, guarding Irish.

“We,” Jackson said, “did it together.”

Shock and surprise swirled through the Verizon Center back hallways after this one finally went final. Did that really happen? And if it did, how the heck did it happen?

Even inside the Irish locker room, the guys still in the sweat-soaked yellow jerseys sat and answered questions not only about the comeback, but about busting up the made-for-TV matchup between Carolina and Duke.

Heck, it’s Notre Dame that might be ready for must-see TV.

On Saturday, Notre Dame rode its up-tempo offense and deeper bench to an easy victory over North Carolina State in the regular-season finale. Many wondered if Brey had reached the point of leaning on more than just his starters. Matt Farrell was ready to help at the point guard. Rex Pflueger was defensive lightning in a bottle; Matt Ryan the same but on offense.

Certainly all three would be factors in postseason.

That still may happen this month, but when it comes down to crunch time — winning time, advance or go home for good time — this is the starters' show.

The core five all played at least 35 minutes — three logged more than 41. All scored double figures. They played. They led. They won.

“We’ve got to set the example and set the tone,” Auguste said.

The five knew they were going to find a way, They knew they could flip a game that nobody expected to be flipped.

Then they did. Confidently.

Doubt them at times? Sure.

Count them out for good? Do it at your own risk.

NOTRE DAME 84, No. 19 DUKE 79, OT

DUKE (23-10): Brandon Ingram 5-16 3-4 16, Marshall Plumlee 1-2 0-4 2, Grayson Allen 7-21 8-8 27, Luke Kennard 2-14 2-2 6, Matt Jones 5-10 0-0 13, Derryck Thornton 2-6 2-2 6, Chase Jeter 3-4 1-2 7, Sean Obi 0-0 2-2 2. Totals 25-73 18-24 79.

NOTRE DAME (21-10): Zach Auguste 8-13 3-6 19, Bonzie Colson 5-8 2-4 12, V.J. Beachem 7-12 1-2 19, Demetrius Jackson 3-10 7-8 13, Steve Vasturia 4-11 4-4 12, Matt Ryan 3-6 0-0 9, Rex Pflueger 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 30-60 17-24 84.

Halftime--Duke 45-37. End Of Regulation--Tied 70. 3-Point Goals--Duke 11-36 (Allen 5-15, Jones 3-5, Ingram 3-7, Thornton 0-3, Kennard 0-6), Notre Dame 7-20 (Beachem 4-7, Ryan 3-6, Jackson 0-3, Vasturia 0-4). Fouled Out--Allen, Jeter, Plumlee. Rebounds--Duke 40 (Ingram 7), Notre Dame 44 (Auguste 22). Assists--Duke 14 (Thornton 4), Notre Dame 17 (Vasturia 6). Total Fouls--Duke 25, Notre Dame 21. A--18,561.

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Notre Dame forward Matt Ryan, left, and Bonzie Colson celebrate during Thursday's second-half comeback to beat Duke in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Washington.AP Photo/STEVE HELBER