Notes: Notre Dame men choose poise over panic in hoops huddles

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Halfway through the second half of Tuesday’s late game between No. 23 Notre Dame and Fort Wayne saw many in the Purcell Pavilion crowd decide that they had seen enough.

With the home team holding a seemingly secure 20-point lead, dozens of fans decided to get an early start on traffic and head for home.

It would soon get interesting before an 87-72 Irish win.

A Notre Dame lead that topped out at 27 points with 11:38 left eventually melted away. Just over five minutes after the building cooled with so many exit doors opening, the other team heated up.The Irish lead was sliced to 13. Notre Dame needed a timeout with 4:55 remaining.

Less than two minutes later, it went to 11. Uneasiness arrived.

The Irish were out of sorts, especially on the defensive end. Bad offensive possessions – quick shots, no ball reversal – followed. A media timeout allowed the group to again regroup. Seeing the Irish head coach skirt the lunatic fringe in the huddle was not an option.

“There’s no panic,” Mike Brey said of the second-half timeout huddles. “There’s discussion. There’s a little bit of, we’re going to be fine. I certainly reiterated that.

“I’m not doing backflips.”

The Irish felt they’d indeed be fine – and were – because they found themselves in a similar situation this season. Last month in the Legends Classic championship game against Northwestern, Notre Dame trailed by six with just over six minutes remaining. Timeout huddles the rest of the way were more matter-of-fact than we-better-stop-this-bleeding.

The Irish figured it out then for a four-point win. They figured it out Tuesday.

The team captains had something to say. So did the starters. Even guys on the bench, some of whom hadn’t played in the second half, were encouraged to offer their opinions.

“We have great huddles,” said sophomore guard Rex Pflueger. “Communication between our coaches and our team is amazing. We’re able to talk it out.”

Then work it out. Fort Wayne got as close as nine before the Irish decided to guard better and run offense better. And like they have all year, they made their late free throws.

As for the game being far closer than anyone who left early might have imagined? Brey didn’t much mind.

“It was good to have some game pressure on us,” he said. “We had some tough stuff happen and we’re going to be in a stretch now where a lot of tough stuff’s going to happen.

“I’m interested to see how they react.”

High praise

Fort Wayne coach Jon Coffman left Purcell Pavilion late Tuesday night even more impressed with what he saw of the Irish up close.

“That Notre Dame team is going to be something special,” Coffman said. “They’re undervalued in the country right now.”

Not by Coffman. The third-year coach has a vote in the weekly USA Today/Coaches poll, where the Irish are ranked for the first time this week at No. 22. He’s been slotting them higher long before the team’s 9-0 start matched the best ever under Brey.

Coffman believes there aren’t 21 better teams than Notre Dame.

“America’s going to see that pretty quickly,” he said.

Why? Notre Dame again is one of the more efficient offensive teams in the country, but the Irish are doing it on the other end. Like Tuesday’s first half, when Notre Dame held Fort Wayne to 32.1 percent from the floor and 10 percent from 3. That effort helped the Irish build an 18-point halftime lead.

After shaving a 27-point deficit to nine with 2:47 remaining, the Mastodons could get no closer, in part because they never again did score against the Irish defense.

“They’ve added another punch to what is already one of the most elite offenses in the country and that is a really stingy defense that sits in gaps and really makes you work to get good shots,” Coffman said. “You saw the adversity they put us under in the first half.

“Notre Dame is going to be a very, very good team.”

In the latest NCAA rankings, the Irish are 45th in scoring defense at 63.7 and 30th for field goal percentage defense (37.8 percent). Last year, they finished 144th (70.6 ppg.) and 156th (43.2 percent).

Drive time

Sensing that the Fort Wayne defense preferred to hug shooters and limit clean looks from 3 in the second half, Irish captain Steve Vasturia impacted the second half in other ways.

He did it by driving off the dribble and slicing the defense with constant moves and cuts and subsequent layups. When he wasn’t doing that (Vasturia finished 5-for-7 inside the 3-point arc), he was getting to the foul line (8-for-8).

“It’s just kind of knowing where your game is going,” said Vasturia, who scored 21 points, one shy of matching his career high. “In this one, they were closing out hard, but we got to the bonus early. So you’re driving, you’re going to get a hand-check, get bumped and get to the free-throw line. We like attacking.”

Notre Dame went 20-of-23 (87 percent) from the free throw line. The Irish lead the nation in foul shooting at 85.9 percent.

Since going 6-of-9 from the foul line in the Nov. 26 game against Chicago State, Notre Dame is 64-for-70 (91.4 percent) over the last three games.

Last word

Brey was asked plenty during his post-game press conference about Saturday’s showdown against top-ranked and fellow undefeated Villanova.

Is Notre Dame tough enough to beat the defending national champion?

“Yeah,” Brey deadpanned. “Yeah.”

How might they do it?

“Yeah,” Brey reiterated. “Next question.”

Villanova leads the all-time series 18-17. The Irish won the last three and five of seven when both were in the Big East.

FORT WAYNE (7-3): Calhoun 1-2 0-0 2, Evans 9-18 3-3 25, Konchar 7-9 3-3 18, Harrell 1-4 0-0 3, Scott 0-10 2-2 2, Talla 0-1 0-0 0, Taylor 5-8 0-0 10, King 1-4 0-0 3, Ruise 3-3 0-0 6, Stewart 1-2 0-0 3. Totals 28-61 8-8 72.

NOTRE DAME (9-0): Geben 1-2 1-2 3, Beachem 4-14 4-5 14, Colson 6-11 2-2 17, Farrell 4-10 4-4 12, Vasturia 6-11 8-8 21, Mooney 1-1 0-0 2, Ryan 1-4 0-0 3, Torres 0-1 0-0 0, Pflueger 3-8 0-0 9, Gibbs 2-5 1-2 6. Totals 28-67 20-23 87.

Halftime--Notre Dame 41-23. 3-Point Goals--IPFW 8-23 (Evans 4-10, King 1-1, Konchar 1-1, Stewart 1-2, Harrell 1-4, Talla 0-1, Scott 0-4), Notre Dame 11-35 (Pflueger 3-5, Colson 3-5, Beachem 2-11, Ryan 1-3, Gibbs 1-3, Vasturia 1-4, Farrell 0-4). Fouled Out--Taylor. Rebounds--IPFW 37 (Konchar 9), Notre Dame 35 (Colson 14). Assists--IPFW 11 (Evans 3), Notre Dame 20 (Farrell 6). Total Fouls--IPFW 21, Notre Dame 9. Technicals--IPFW coach Jon Coffman. A--7,204 (9,149).

tnoie@ndinsider.com

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