Notre Dame men's hoops fine from foul line

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Nearly 100 college basketball games and 3,400 minutes played later, Notre Dame senior captain Steve Vasturia still remembers his first time at the foul line.

A freshman guard expected to ease into the rotation during the 2013-14 season – that sure would change – Vasturia was called into action in the closing minute of a close late-December game against then-No. 3 Ohio State at Madison Square Garden. With the Irish having lost point guard Eric Atkins to fouls and unable to hold an eight-point lead with 50 seconds remaining, coach Mike Brey needed someone who could take care of the ball and make a free throw.

Brey had confidence that Vasturia could.

Prior to that game, Vasturia had logged DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision) in four of his previous five. He had played all of 60 seconds earlier in the game. With the Irish up one, 32 seconds left and seemingly everyone from his hometown of Medford, N.J., in the Garden stands that Saturday night, Vasturia was fouled and sent to the free throw line.

On the front end of a one-and-one, he missed.

“I can laugh about it now,” Vasturia said. “I’m grateful I had the chance. If I could do it again, I’d like to be in that situation.”

Ohio State won 64-61. The next night, former Irish guard Jerian Grant announced he was leaving the program for the spring semester because of an “academic misstep.” The day after that, sophomore swingman Cameron Biedscheid finalized transfer plans. With those immediate issues hovering over the Notre Dame program, it was as if the late-game Garden meltdown never happened.

Vasturia didn’t forgot. Still hasn’t.

“At the time, it was pretty tough to take, being thrown in there,” Vasturia said Friday in advance of Sunday’s home game against North Carolina A&T, a contest not expected to hinge on late free throws. “Being a freshman, OK, I had my chance. There’s just going to be a lot more, just try to get better and learn from it.

“I think I did.”

Vasturia shot 68.4 percent from the foul line as a freshman, 86.5 percent as a sophomore and 85.4 percent as a junior. Now as a senior, he’s nearly automatic. He’s 20-of-21 (95.2 percent) to date, second in the Atlantic Coast Conference and ninth in the nation.

He’s also delivered in late-game situations. Vasturia is 11-for-11 from the foul line in the last five minutes of games this year. With such lopsided second-half scores, he hasn’t played in three of the seven. But when the game’s there to close out at the line, he wants the ball, wants to go to the foul line and wants to knock them in.

“I’m definitely confident to step up and knock down big free throws,” said Vasturia, who went 4-of-4 the final 43 seconds of the win over Colorado, then hit all six in the final 2:50 of Tuesday’s win over Iowa. “If I have the chance to knock down some free throws, I want to do it.

“I’m confident in myself.”

That confidence courses through the entire Irish locker room. Notre Dame ranks first in the ACC (84.5 percent) and second in the nation in free throw shooting. Only Portland was better at 85.4.

“The foul line is an unbelievable weapon for us,” Brey said. “I just think we’re the best team in the country from there. We get there and then we capitalize when we get there.”

Especially late. In the last five minutes of the first seven games, Notre Dame is shooting 94.4 percent (34-of-36). The Irish missed one in the season opener against Bryant, and another against Northwestern. They were 8-for-8 to close out Iowa.

“That’s a huge weapon for us,” said junior guard Matt Farrell, who’s 9-for-9 the last five minutes this season and an ACC-best 19-for-19 overall to date. “We’ve got guys that want to go to the line in those situations and trust that we’re going to make those shots and other guys are going to make those shots. It’s just confidence.”

Farrell and Vasturia have plenty of foul-shot making company. Junior Bonzie Colson, the team’s leading scorer at 18.1 points per game, is shooting 90.9 percent. Senior captain V.J. Beachem is at 82.1.

The Irish shot 74.2 percent from the foul line each of the previous two seasons.

With an average margin of victory at 22.6, the Irish have been in only one game – Northwestern – that hinged on late-game situations. Still, shooting game-situation free throws are on every practice plan. Down one, gotta make two. Tie game, better make one. Then also make a certain number as a group halfway through practice and again at the end, otherwise the Irish have to run and try to do it again until they do.

During an October open practice for season-ticket holders, Brey outlined the foul-shooting pressure situation process for fans in the Purcell Pavilion stands. The Irish didn’t deliver that day, but have when it counts.

“There is some pressure in those (practice) game situations,” Farrell said. “That helps. It’s just having confidence to be in those situations and just be ready.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

WHO: Notre Dame (7-0) vs. North Carolina A&T (1-6).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Sunday at 5 p.m.

TICKETS: Plenty available.

TV: None.

INTERNET: ACC Network Extra.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

 NOTING: North Carolina A&T is a public university of about 10,000 students located in Greensboro, N.C. … Junior guard Sam Hunt scored 20 points, including six 3-pointers, in Friday’s 85-67 home loss North Dakota State. The Aggies were out-rebounded 47-25. … North Carolina A&T has lost six straight since a season-opening win over Division III Greensboro (N.C.) College. … Former Notre Dame point guard and 1977 team captain Ray “Dice” Martin is in his first season as an assistant at North Carolina A&T. It’s Martin’s 12th stop as a college assistant. He also was the head coach at Long Island University (1998-2001). … This starts a stretch of six of the next seven on the road for the Aggies, who are 0-4 on the road this season following last week’s 86-66 loss at North Carolina Greensboro. … North Carolina A&T returns one starter off last year’s team that finished 10-22, 7-9 and tied for sixth place in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. … The Aggies were picked this preseason to finish seventh. Hunt, the team’s leading scorer (13.0), was a first team all-league preseason selection. … North Carolina A&T won 20 games in 2012-13 but won a combined 28 games the next three seasons. … These teams have never met. … A win Sunday would match the best-ever start (8-0) for Notre Dame under Mike Brey. The Irish started 8-0 en route to finishing 27-7 in 2010-11.

QUOTING: “Big week starting with Sunday. That’s something we’re kind of used to now. It’s fun to play games. It’s better than coming and practicing.”

• Notre Dame senior captain Steve Vasturia on three games scheduled over the next seven days.