Notebook: Josh Hart too hot to handle for Notre Dame men's basketball

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

NEWARK, N.J. – A nice-sized bag of ice, carried onto the post-game dais for whatever ailed at the moment, might have been the only way to cool Villanova senior guard Josh Hart.

The guy was smoking from seemingly everywhere Saturday against No. 23 Notre Dame in the inaugural Never Forget Tribute Classic at Prudential Center.

Hart had a relatively quiet start, but once he got going, he never really stopped. Shooting. Scoring. Dominating. He scored a career-high 37 points, including a career best 14-of-14 from the foul line, to single-handedly hand the Irish (9-1) their first loss, 74-66.

“I honestly didn't know how many points I had,” Hart said. “I was just trying to make the right play.”

Most often, the right play meant the 6-foot-5 Hart scoring against various Irish defenders. Steve Vasturia tried to slow him. Rex Pflueger gave it a go. V.J. Beachem. Bonzie Colson. Nobody in green could do much about Hart, who kept doing more.

“We knew we'd have to focus on him,” Vasturia said. “We obviously didn't do a good enough job. He had a heck of a game. We've got to be better defensively.”

No other Wildcat scored more than eight points. Then again, they didn't have to. The 37 points were the most scored against Notre Dame since former Providence forward LaDontae Henton had 38 on Nov. 23, 2014.

“Everybody has to have that chip on their shoulder to be great,” Hart said. “I want to be great.”

He was Saturday.

Solid showing

Had it not been for Hart's heavy lifting, Notre Dame junior Matt Farrell might well have been the best guard on the floor in his first return to the home state.

The Bridgewater, N.J. native finished with 18 points, six assists, two rebounds and two steals in 36 minutes.

“It was a blast playing here,” Farrell said.

Farrell got going early against the perimeter-oriented Wildcats. He scored eight points in the first four-plus minutes, then capped a solid opening 20 with a layup to beat the halftime horn.

His game was a surprise to some seeing him for the first time back in New Jersey. But he's basically played that way all year, the way coach Mike Brey has asked him to play – with confidence. Here's the ball, go make plays.

“He's taken it and run with it,” Brey said. “It's his squad.”

Difficult defense

After Notre Dame twice led by 11 points in a first half that saw the Irish score 41, Villanova tightened the second-half defensive screws.

Notre Dame shot a respectable 40 percent from the floor, but hit only 18 percent (2-of-11) from 3 and scored 25 points.

It was a season low for any half by Notre Dame.

With a mix of mainly man and some zone, the Wildcats just didn't let the Irish get into a rhythm.

“They did a great job defensively the second half being in gaps,” Farrell said. “We could have attacked more.”

Travel travails

Notre Dame had an interesting trip just to get out to New Jersey.

It all started as the Irish traveling party prepared to leave Purcell Pavilion early Friday afternoon.

The charter bus that was backed into the arena loading area wouldn't start. So the Irish men borrowed the bus that was waiting to take the women's team to Chicago for Saturday's game against DePaul.

Expected to have its charter flight go into Newark Liberty International, Notre Dame had to scramble when the airport was stacked up with its usual Friday night of long delays.

The Irish chartered into Teterboro, arriving almost three hours behind schedule.

Notre Dame returned to Northern Indiana ahead of the pending snow around 6:30 on Saturday night.

Baseline bits

• After making 50 percent of his shots from the field in games against Chicago State (6-of-12), Iowa (5-of-10) and North Carolina A&T (7-of-14), senior captain V.J. Beachem is 6-for-25 (24 percent) the last two games. He was 4-of-14 against Fort Wayne and 2-of-11 on Saturday. Both baskets were on drives.

• Notre Dame attempted a season-low six free throws. The Irish made them all. Villanova went 20-of-22 from the foul line, including 15-17 in the second half.

• Four Irish starters logged at least 35 minutes.

• In a game that featured two ties and three lead changes, Notre Dame led for 30:54.

• Villanova has won 16 straight games – 10 in a row to open the season and six straight to close last season.

• Sophomore guard Rex Pflueger continues his early streak without a turnover. Pflueger played a turnover-free 19 minutes. He's now played 180 minutes this year without a turnover. He had five points, three rebounds and an assist.

• After committing only two turnovers in the first half, the Irish had seven in the second, including four in the opening three minutes.

• Former Irish standout Kelly Tripucka, who recently underwent left knee surgery for a torn meniscus, worked Saturday's game as a color commentator for Westwood One.

• Notre Dame was outrebounded (33-25) for the second straight game and fourth time this season.

• Saturday's game ended a run of three games in seven days for the Irish, who get the next six days off to concentrate on final exams before the annual Crossroads Classic game, this year against Purdue.

• Pittsburgh beat Penn State, 81-73, in the second game of Saturday's doubleheader. Pittsburgh is Notre Dame's Atlantic Coast Conference opener – and first true road game – on Dec. 31.

Villanova's Josh Hart (3) goes up for a basket over Notre Dame's Rex Pflueger (0) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, in Newark, N.J. Villanova won 74-66. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)