Analysis: Notre Dame men roll, ready for bigger challenges

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Time for Notre Dame to step it up across the basketball board, but not before stepping into the history books.

A school-record seven Irish scored double figures led by senior captain V.J. Beachem’s 19 points as 8-0 Notre Dame rolled to a 107-53 victory Sunday over 1-7 North Carolina A&T.

The 54-point margin is the largest ever in the 48-year history of Purcell Pavilion.

When the final horn sounded at 6:43 p.m., everything about the Irish season to date also ended. Time to start over and start with much higher stakes. Season-defining stakes.

Now it gets interesting. In a prove-it way the rest of the way.

That’s just how this Irish outfit wants it, needs it after eight wins by an average of 26.5 points.

“We want to play hard games; I think we’re good in hard games,” said senior captain Steve Vasturia. “We’ve got a nice little segment here. We’re excited for a good challenge.

“Everybody is ready to show people what we’re made of and take this team where we think we can take it.”

For the first time this season, Notre Dame likely sees its name in the Top 25 when the latest polls drop Monday afternoon. It has to. The Irish are the only unbeaten Atlantic Coast Conference team remaining. No league team – not Duke or North Carolina or Louisville or Virginia, all poll mainstays since preseason – has more wins.

Sunday’s win tied the best start of a Mike Brey-coached Irish team (8-0). Notre Dame started 8-0 in 2010-11. That team finished 27-7. That was a special group, a driven group. This one has the makings of one as well.

But it’s time for this Notre Dame team that has had a relatively easy go of it to deal with some tough stuff. The rest of this week – and most of the rest of the month – is exactly that.

Tough.

“I love what’s coming at us,” Brey said. “I love the challenges that await us this week.”

How will the Irish respond?

Fort Wayne comes flying into town Tuesday winners of six straight, including at home last month over then-No. 3 Indiana. The Mastodons believe they can play with anybody, and will be prepared to prove that on a big national-television stage Tuesday.

Brey believes it’s the best team his team has played to date.

Win or lose, defending national champion Villanova awaits Notre Dame on Saturday in Newark, N.J. The Wildcats should be the nation’s newest No. 1 Monday. They’ll present a whole host of challenges to an Irish team that believes it’s ready to prove it belongs.

Does it?

The rest of this week will be a good indication.

“Every game is about us, to improve and get to where we want to be,” said junior captain Bonzie Colson. “We have guys who play with a lot of heart and passion.

“All of us are ready to play some (big) games.”

In addition to the obvious objective – winning – Sunday served its purpose in that it allowed Brey to dive deeper into his rotation than he did last week in the shorten-the-rotation-and-go-get-it win over Iowa.

Freshman guard T.J. Gibbs played more and handed out a career-high seven assists. Matt Ryan played more and erupted for what Brey termed the quietest 17 points he’s ever seen. Sophomore swingman Rex Pflueger, who had been nursing a rib injury suffered late last month, got back into his do-everything rhythm.

Pflueger had 10 points, five assists, five rebounds and a career-best three blocks.

“Some of the individual defensive plays Rex made, I don’t know if other people in the country can do that,” Brey said. “He’s just a pain to deal with.”

All 11 Irish scholarship players scored and logged at least eight minutes. In going for a season high for points, Notre Dame also finished with a season-high 29 assists and connected on a season-high 19 3-pointers, one shy of tying the school record. The Irish were 14-of-14 from the foul line and got a dizzying 45 points from their reserves. Notre Dame scored 62 points in the second half.

All five starters were on the bench watching with three minutes remaining. That may not be the case for much of the rest of the month.

The Irish are ready to find out.

“We’ve really put ourselves in a great position,” Brey said. “We’ve handled our business. They’re ready for the next level of challenges, and here they come.”

Part of the Notre Dame pre-game hype video that rolls across the center-hung scoreboard includes an audio clip of Brey talking about how when the lights are bright and the stage is big, the Irish deliver.

The lights are about to be brighter.

The stage is about to be bigger.

Time for these Irish to deliver.

• NOTRE DAME 107, NC A&T 53

NC A&T (1-7): Aaron Scales 4-6 3-4 11, Davaris McGowens 2-6 1-2 5, Eliel Gonzalez 7-14 2-2 18, Raymon Pratt 0-8 0-0 0, Sam Hunt 5-17 2-2 17, Mike Owona 1-1 0-0 2, Joshua Mullins 0-1 0-0 0, Austin Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Amari Hamilton 0-4 0-0 0, Martin Jones 0-6 0-0 0. Totals 19-63 8-10 53.

NOTRE DAME (8-0): V.J. Beachem 7-14 3-3 19, Bonzie Colson 4-8 2-2 10, Martinas Geben 2-3 1-1 5, Steve Vasturia 4-7 2-2 13, Matt Farrell 5-7 1-1 15, Patrick Mazza 0-0 0-0 0, John Mooney 0-0 2-2 2, Austin Torres 1-3 0-0 2, Matt Ryan 6-8 0-0 17, Matt Gregory 0-1 0-0 0, Elijah Burns 0-1 2-2 2, T.J. Gibbs 4-7 0-0 12, Rex Pflueger 4-7 1-1 10. Totals 37-66 14-14 107.

Halftime-Notre Dame 45-29. 3-Point Goals-NC A&T 7-32 (Hunt 5-14, Gonzalez 2-5, Hamilton 0-4, Raymon 0-4, Jones 0-5), Notre Dame 19-35 (Ryan 5-7, Farrell 4-5, Gibbs 4-6, Vasturia 3-5, Beachem 2-6, Pflueger 1-3, Colson 0-1, Gregory 0-1, Burns 0-1). Fouled Out-Geben. Rebounds-NC A&T 27 (Scales 9), Notre Dame 41 (Colson 11). Assists-NC A&T 7 (Raymon 3), Notre Dame 29 (Gibbs 7). Total Fouls-NC A&T 14, Notre Dame 12. A-7,801 (9,149).

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame power forward Austin Torres blocks the shot of North Carolina A & T's Aaron Scales during Sunday's game at Purcell Pavilion. (Tribune Photo/MIKE HARTMAN)