Lesar: Attitude fueled victory for Notre Dame men's basketball over Louisville

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – It was subtle. But the message came across loud and clear.

Coming out of a timeout with about six minutes left in the game and the Irish leading by a couple, Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia crossed paths with Louisville’s Ryan McMahon.

Instead of a brush-by in passing, Vasturia delivered a chest-bump that snapped McMahon to attention.

Alrighty then, game on.

That was the attitude the Irish basketball team brought with it into the final minutes of Wednesday night’s 77-70 win over ninth-ranked Louisville.

This was the opportunity for the No. 23 Irish to finally bury the frustration of victories that should have been against Villanova and Purdue.

And it was Vasturia who made the magic happen.

In addition to scoring 24 points, it was Vasturia who demanded the ball with 19 seconds left and the Irish leading by three. He cut across the middle, navigated through Louisville’s tall timbers, and found the bottom of the basket to put Notre Dame up by five.

That win was more about attitude than anything else.

The Irish refused to wilt like they did in their two earlier losses. They stood their ground against the more athletic Cardinals.

When others were disappearing – V.J. Beachem scored all of two points and Bonzie Colson had just seven in the second half – it was Vasturia and Matt Farrell who took control.

“Our mental and physical toughness was great tonight,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “I thought the lightbulb would really go off for (Vasturia) once (Atlantic Coast Conference) play started. It has.”

Vasturia scored 15 in the win over Pitt on New Year’s Eve.

There was a time when this one appeared to follow the script. The Irish got their mandatory double-digit first-half lead.

Now, what are they going to do with it?

That’s how the script has gone for Notre Dame against blimp-worthy programs this season.

Remember Villanova (11 points)? Purdue (17)?

Toss Louisville into that group.

Eight minutes into the game, Notre Dame had a 17-7 advantage and looked like a team that could be destined to re-write the blueprint and finally capture a significant win.

What had been fool’s gold in the past, finally came up 24 karats.

After scoring 11 in the first half, Bonzie Colson went silent for the first 10 minutes of the second half. Without that production, Vasturia and Farrell became more engaged.

At one point midway through the second half, the Irish – leading by two – had trouble with their offensive spacing. Colson and Beachem were clogging up the area around Vasturia, who had the ball. Vasturia split the defenders, found a lane to the basket, and hit a layup.

It took five minutes midway through the first half for the lead to erode, but, unlike the two losses, it never completely evaporated. The Irish led by five at the break and seemed to own the upper hand despite having vital cogs like Beachem – who passed up some good-looking shot opportunities – and Matt Ryan combining to contribute one shot, no points and two rebounds in their 19 minutes of first-half action.

Colson, Farrell and Vasturia generated 36 of Notre Dame’s 42 points. Being able to lead in rebounds, 20-15, and keeping the long and athletic Cardinals off the offensive boards (5) had a lot to do with the Irish staying afloat.

Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell was hard to stop, scoring 16 in the first 20 minutes.

Farrell, who barely stands 6-foot tall – in lifts – was amazing again as he did what he does.

Early in the game, with the ball movement effective, Farrell passed up a 3-pointer within the offensive rotation. Then, with the shot clock winding down, he hit a one-handed, off-balance shot beyond the arc.

Farrell’s so much fun to watch, and frustrating to guard. He’ll give up six or seven inches to his defender, but won’t back down from taking him to the rack – and scoring.

He’s got the fire in his eye; the look that Vasturia showed over those final six minutes.

They’ve got the attitude it takes to do special things.

At least they did Wednesday night.

Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson (35) and Matt Farrell (5) celebrate during the Louisville at Notre Dame men’s basketball at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA
Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson (35) hits Louisville’s Jaylen Johnson (10) while fighting for a rebound during the Louisville at Notre Dame men’s basketball at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)