Analysis: Notre Dame seniors falter as Irish fall to Purdue

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS – On a day when the basketball law of averages threatened to turn on No. 21 Notre Dame in the sixth annual Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the main Irish couldn’t afford to flirt with average.

They were average.

Senior captains V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia went scoreless in Saturday’s second half in an 86-81 loss to No. 15 Purdue. For the second straight Saturday, Notre Dame couldn’t hold a double-digit lead against a ranked team. As a result, Notre Dame (9-2) lost a second straight Saturday to a ranked team.

The loss snapped a four-game Irish win streak against the Big Ten. The win was Purdue’s first in Crossroads Classic history. This one stings just a little more – OK, a whole lot more – than the previous week against top-ranked Villanova.

The Irish felt they gave this one away. Handed it to a hungrier group of Boilermakers.

“We didn’t get enough stops to win,” said junior guard Matt Farrell. “That’s just toughness.”

Farrell erupted for a career-high 22 points. Bonzie Colson added his seventh double-double with 23 points and 10 rebounds. Able to answer the physical challenge for a good chunk of the day, junior power forward Martinas Geben delivered a season-high nine points with six rebounds in 22 minutes.

But Notre Dame isn’t going to win much when Beachem and Vasturia combine to go 0-for-6 in the second half.

Beachem missed his only shot after the break; Vasturia fouled out.

Shouldn’t happen. Can’t happen.

As freshmen? OK. Sophomores? Understandable. Juniors? No. Seniors? Never. No excuses.

Harsh? Perhaps, but these are two guys who have each played in more than 100 games and have talked about embracing big games. On Saturday, the big game got the best of them.

Beachem finished with 10 points, Vasturia a season-low 3.

“We’re not going to beat good teams,” Irish coach Mike Brey said of his seniors’ struggles. “Those guys had a tough one. Those guys, they have to be really good for us to beat good teams.”

When they’re not good, neither are the Irish.

“They’re two of our main guys,” said Farrell. “We need them to be aggressive. However they get going, we’ve got to find ways to get them going.”

Back at Prudential Center, Notre Dame put itself in position to beat Villanova by building an 11-point lead. Coming up short left the Irish more determined than disappointed. Taking a big team’s best shot gave them the belief that they could stand among the nation’s elite.

On Saturday, letting a seemingly secure 17-point lead get away left the Irish more disappointed than determined. The previous week, they believed they could be really good.

Saturday afternoon, they were left to wonder just what the coming weeks and months might hold. Elite teams find ways to put away elite teams. The Irish couldn’t. For myriad reasons.

While Beachem and Vasturia struggled, so did the Irish toughness. Interior toughness. Down by 14 at the break, Purdue returned and almost immediately punched Notre Dame in the mouth with nine unanswered points, part of a 12-2 run that flipped a one-sided game to a suddenly competitive one.

But as the Boilers kept punching, the Irish never really answered. Not for the 42 points in the paint allowed. Not for the (-10) rebounding margin. Not for the 12 second-chance points or 29 points off the bench.

“I think we underestimated them a little bit,” Geben said. “A lot of things added up for us to lose. We’re just getting a little complacent at halftime.”

Caleb Swanigan busted loose for 26 points and 10 rebounds. Vincent Edwards and Ryan Cline, and anyone else wearing white and gold and black, got going from the 3-point line. When this one was there for the taking, Purdue took it.

Worse yet, the Irish seemingly let them. Didn’t put up much of a fight the way Notre Dame will have to against the Pittsburghs, the Lousivilles, the North Carolinas of the rapidly-approaching Atlantic Coast Conference world.

“We didn’t do enough tough stuff in the paint,” said Brey. “Tough one to swallow.”

One of the tougher ones in Brey’s 17 seasons. Saturday marked the first time that Notre Dame has lost consecutive December games since 2003 when it was beaten at home by Central Michigan and Indiana. That season ended with a trip to the National Invitation Tournament.

Where’s this season headed? After Saturday, nobody really can say.

If the loss to Villanova offered Notre Dame hope, this one was a cold bucket of water over the collective head of the Irish.

It would be a long, quiet bus ride back home.

The Irish are 0-2 against ranked teams. They have to accept that. Now.

“We’re not in the league of the two high-level teams we’ve played,” Brey admitted. “We’ve got a nice team. I love our team.”

But ...

“We’re not in their league right now.”

Notre Dame sophomore forward Matt Ryan had a chance to tie it with 24 seconds left but his 3 hit nothing but arena air.

It’s a quick turnaround for Notre Dame, which plays Monday at home against Colgate. The Irish then head home for Christmas break before wrapping non-league play back in South Bend against Saint Peter’s on Dec. 28. The ACC opener arrives three days later at Pittsburgh.

“We’ve got some work to do before New Year’s Eve,” Brey said.

A lot.

• PURDUE 86, NOTRE DAME 81

NOTRE DAME (9-2): Martinas Geben 3-4 3-4 9, V.J. Beachem 4-8 0-0 10, Bonzie Colson 11-21 1-1 23, Matt Farrell 8-15 3-3 22, Steve Vasturia 1-8 0-0 3, Austin Torres 1-1 0-0 2, Matt Ryan 1-2 0-0 3, T,J, Gibbs 3-6 0-0 7, Rex Pflueger 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 33-67 7-8 81.

PURDUE (9-2): Caleb Swanigan 11-19 3-3 26, Isaac Haas 2-8 2-2 6, Carsen Edwards 3-8 4-6 11, Dakota Mathias 2-8 1-2 5, P.J. Thompson 3-6 1-2 9, Basil Smotherman 1-3 0-0 2, Vincent Edwards 7-12 4-4 20, Ryan Cline 1-2 4-4 7. Totals 30-66 19-23 86.

Halftime--Notre Dame 52-38. 3-Point Goals--Notre Dame 8-20 (Farrell 3-6, Beachem 2-3, Ryan 1-2, Gibbs 1-3, Vasturia 1-3, Pflueger 0-1, Colson 0-2), Purdue 7-18 (Thompson 2-4, V.Edwards 2-4, Cline 1-2, Swanigan 1-2, C.Edwards 1-3, Mathias 0-3). Fouled Out--Vasturia. Rebounds--Notre Dame 29 (Colson 10), Purdue 39 (Swanigan, V.Edwards 10). Assists--Notre Dame 18 (Farrell 10), Purdue 19 (Thompson 6). Total Fouls--Notre Dame 21, Purdue 13.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame’s V.J. Beachem (3) puts up a shot during the Notre Dame at Purdue men’s basketball game in the Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016. Purdue won 86-81. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA