Analysis: Scoring, sharing Notre Dame shows it also can guard

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Go out and guard.

When Notre Dame captains V.J. Beachem and Bonzie Colson talked in the summer about how this Irish outfit can be better this winter over previous squads, one theme kept jumping to the front of their conversation line.


Do it. Play it. Embrace it.

Irish teams the last two seasons regardless of their sustained success would get their required three straight stops – kills in program parlance – but just as fast they'd allow two or three or more consecutive possessions of good, open looks from the opposition. It always seemed a struggle on that end of the floor.

The chance to show it could be better surfaced Wednesday against Seattle in the second round of the Legends Classic at Purcell Pavilion.

Able still to move it (23 assists) and shoot it (15 3-pointers) and score it with frightening efficiency and unselfishness, Notre Dame was just as good defensively. Notre Dame finished with 12 steals, forced 21 turnovers and held the opposition to 29.1 percent from the floor while leading by as many as 46 points in a 92-49 victory.

“Me and Bonzie talk about it all the time, having that killer instinct,” said Beachem, who tied his fellow captain for high scoring honors (16). “We stress it with the rest of the team. When we get up on somebody, we want to put our foot on their necks and finish them off as soon as possible.

“If we can take their heart out and take them out of their game, that's what we want to do.”

The heart-taking and neck-cracking started on Seattle's second possession. Power forward Martinas Geben blocked a Morgan Means shot, grabbed a defensive rebound and the Irish were off and running. Less than eight minutes in, Notre Dame was up double digits. By halftime, the Irish were ahead by 31.

This one was over.

Notre Dame hit 10 3s and scored 56 points the opening 20 minutes. But the Irish are always going to be really good offensively, Sometimes scary good. Defensively? Sometimes scary bad.

That just might change this year.

“Our defensive intensity definitely has been a big, big change for us this year,” said sophomore guard Rex Pflueger, who brings plenty of that as the sixth man. “We had a lot of slow starts last year, but this year, our team's really getting after it. Our whole team is attacking.”

It starts with the starters before the reserves move the meter even more. Pflueger's all over the court. Freshman T.J. Gibbs is a handful hounding other point guards. And all senior power forward Austin Torres did minutes after checking in Wednesday was draw yet another charge, barely two games after staggering off the floor with a rapid heartbeat.

“When you come in with a Gibbs and a Pflueger and a Torres, those three guys are terrors defensively,” said coach Mike Brey, “They're flying all over the place. When you substitute, your defense takes a step up.”

It also helps that the collective basketball IQ of the Irish could be at an all-time high. Eight of the 12 scholarship players are enrolled in the Mendoza College of Business. It's not easy for them over across campus by day, but they make it look it by night.

“We've got some smart dudes down there in that locker room,” Brey said. “That carries over into the game.”

It's still way early in a long season. The Irish have yet to answer any real adversity, something that could be coming quickly. But this group is just more locked in on locking down. They'll get after you. They'll guard. They want to do it.

“It's something we're going to take pride in,” point guard Matt Farrell said. “We've heard about guys leaving and the ifs and buts about this year, but we're going to play our game.

“We're playing really well defensively, and that translates to our offense. That's great to see.”

Six Irish scored double figures, but seven had at least one steal.

It was all-in on the defensive end.

“When we do that,” Pflueger said. “I believe we're one of the best teams in the country.”

SEATTLE (49): William Powell 2-8 5-5 9, Emmanuel Chibuogwu 1-3 0-0 3, Aaron Menzies 2-6 0-0 4, Brendan Westendorf 0-7 0-0 0, Morgan Means 2-5 1-2 7, Scott Ulaneo 3-7 0-2 7, Zack Moore 1-6 2-2 5, Matej Kavas 4-9 0-0 11, Jack Shaughnessy 1-3 0-0 3, Mattia Da Campo 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 16-54 8-11 49.

NOTRE DAME (92): Martinas Geben 1-1 0-0 2, V.J. Beachem 5-10 3-4 16, Bonzie Colson 6-12 4-5 16, Matt Farrell 4-9 2-2 13, Steve Vasturia 4-6 2-2 13, Patrick Mazza 0-0 0-0 0, Elijah Burns 0-1 0-0 0, John Mooney 0-1 0-0 0, Matt Ryan 3-9 0-0 9, Matt Gregory 0-1 0-0 0, Austin Torres 0-0 0-0 0, T.J. Gibbs 4-8 2-3 11, Rex Pflueger 5-7 0-0 12. Totals 32-65 13-16 92.

Seattle 25 24—49

Notre Dame 56 36—92

3-Point Goals--Seattle 9-29 (Kavas 3-6, Means 2-3, Shaughnessy 1-2, Ulaneo 1-3, Chibuogwu 1-3, Moore 1-6, Westendorf 0-6), Notre Dame 15-34 (Vasturia 3-4, Beachem 3-6, Farrell 3-7, Ryan 3-8, Pflueger 2-3, Gibbs 1-4, Mooney 0-1, Gregory 0-1). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Seattle 26 (Ulaneo 5), Notre Dame 36 (Colson 8). Assists--Seattle 10 (Westendorf 4), Notre Dame 23 (Gibbs 5). Total Fouls--Seattle 15, Notre Dame 15.

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Notre Dame junior power forward Martinas Geben celebrates a dunk during Wednesday's game against Seattle.Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA