Analysis: Loss offers Notre Dame men's basketball winning road map

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

NEWARK, N.J. – Good but not good enough against college basketball’s best.

Two weeks before Christmas, No. 23 Notre Dame will have to sit with that present. It’s the only option.

Off to its best start since 1973-74, Notre Dame had a chance to run its record to 10-0 against top-ranked and defending national champion Villanova (10-0) on Saturday at Prudential Center in the inaugural Never Forget Tribune Classic.

But too much Josh Hart, who went wild for a career-high 37 points, and not enough efficient offense at crunch time – winning time – sent Notre Dame off on the wrong end of the scoreboard, 74-66, for the first time this season.

“We wanted to win this game,” said senior captain Steve Vasturia. “There’s obviously a lot of things we can learn from it. Just trying to find ways to get better. That’s one thing we’ve always preached here.”

Notre Dame likely will be better just by experiencing what it did Saturday. Having won 16 straight dating back to last season, Villanova is the nation’s gold standard. The Irish have seen it in person; now can they mirror it?

In many ways, coach Mike Brey walked into the perfect post-game locker room. Disappointment dominated. And that’s OK. Short of winning, always the optimal option, this one may eventually work out well for an Irish team that has believed since summer that they’re way better than many believe.

They were ready to show it. On the big stage. Against a big-time team. For much of the day – like when they twice built 11-point leads and answered a couple early Villanova runs with some spurts of their own – they did.

But there’s no ribbon for a near-miss. No trophy for giving it their all. Nothing to show for the overall effort.

At least, for now.

“I’m (ticked) we lost, ‘cause I really thought we could beat them,” Brey said. “But I’m really excited about my team. There are some things we can do better.

“They’re a great measuring stick, ‘cause they’re kind of a finished product.”

In a couple months, so might be Notre Dame.

The Irish had chances despite a quiet afternoon from senior captain V.J. Beachem (2-for-11, four points) and even after an opponent finally slowed junior captain Bonzie Colson (11 points, eight rebounds).

Driven by two New Jersey guards – Matt Farrell and Steve Vasturia – the Irish had the Wildcats on their collective heels. Even when Villanova took its first lead – 57-56 with 9:06 remaining – Notre Dame answered.

A Vasturia 3 gave the Irish a 62-61 lead. Put together a final 6:30 minutes of solid work – winning work – and victory No. 8 over the No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll could be inked into the school history books.

Didn’t happen.

Farrell and Vasturia each scored 18 points to lead the Irish.

“When you’ve got two guards like that, those two guys are so confident,” Brey said. “We’ve got a chance with those two guys.”

Afterward, the Irish remained all business. They really didn’t want to talk about near-misses, didn’t want to talk about scaring ‘Nova Nation.

Didn’t want to linger.

Typical road games, win or lose, see the Irish shower and hang around the arena visiting with various family and friends. Less than 40 minutes after the final horn, players were already on the bus ready to head for their charter flight home, where a week of final exams await.

Notre Dame saw what it’s going to take to be considered among the elite of the elite, whether in the Atlantic Coast Conference when league play commences in 20 days or in March, when wins and losses really matter.

“It’s a long road all the way through the season,” Vasturia said. “You’re going to take your punches and this group’s got to be able to bounce back, and I think we will.”

Unable to have any answer for Hart – everyone in a green uniform seemingly tried to check him – Notre Dame still was right there.

A Vasturia lay-in with 4:35 remaining brought the Irish within one. A Colson steal with just over three minutes remaining gave the Irish a shot at the lead.

Beachem worked free with 2:53 left for a clean 3. The shot looked true. It rolled around, went halfway down and bounced out. And with it, Notre Dame’s chance at victory.

“I love our fight,” Brey said.

Afterward, in a back arena hallway, Brey shared a laugh about the Jersey Shore with Villanova coach Jay Wright, who finally was able to smile. Wright wasn’t doing too much of it earlier in the afternoon, when his Wildcats had their hands full with a team that also had some serious swagger.

He’s glad he doesn’t see the Irish again.

Maybe.

“That’s a really good basketball team,” Wright said. “Notre Dame is really good.”

With a better blueprint now on how to be better.

VILLANOVA (10-0): Kris Jenkins 2-9 2-3 7, Darryl Reynolds 2-3 2-3 6, Josh Hart 10-14 14-14 37, Jalen Brunson 3-8 2-2 8, Mikal Bridges 4-8 0-0 8, Eric Paschall 4-4 0-0 8, Donte DiVincenzo 0-4 0-0 0. Totals 25-50 20-22 74.

NOTRE DAME (9-1): Bonzie Colson 5-12 1-1 11, V.J. Beachem 2-11 0-0 4, Martinas Geben 2-3 1-1 5, Steve Vasturia 7-15 2-2 18, Matt Farrell 8-13 0-0 18, Matt Ryan 0-0 0-0 0, Austin Torres 0-0 0-0 0, Rex Pflueger 2-2 0-0 5, T.J. Gibbs 1-2 2-2 5. Totals 27-58 6-6 66.

Halftime--Notre Dame 41-36. 3-Point Goals--Villanova 4-16 (Hart 3-4, Jenkins 1-5, Bridges 0-1, Brunson 0-2, DiVincenzo 0-4), Notre Dame 6-22 (Farrell 2-5, Vasturia 2-6, Pflueger 1-1, Gibbs 1-2, Colson 0-3, Beachem 0-5). Tunovers: Villanova 10 (Jenkins 3), Notre Dame 9 (Colson 2, Farrell 2, Vasturia 2); Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Villanova 33 (Hart 11), Notre Dame 22 (Colson 8). Assists--Villanova 10 (Hart 4), Notre Dame 16 (Farrell 6). Total Fouls--Villanova 10, Notre Dame 17.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame's Martinas Geben (23), of Lithuania, tries to block a shot by Villanova's Mikal Bridges (25) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)