Notes: Foul line again a basketball friend for Notre Dame men

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Paths of two old friends crossed again late Wednesday for the first time this New Year, and the results were good for No. 23 Notre Dame in its Atlantic Coast Conference home opener.

For a chunk of non-conference play, the Irish enjoyed plenty of separation from overmatched opponents with frequent trips to the free throw line. Notre Dame shot at least 20 free throws in five of their first 13 games. The Irish won all five, highlighted by a season-high 33 attempts in a 14-point win over Iowa.

The line had been a hard place to find against quality competition. In Notre Dame’s two losses, each to ranked teams in No. 1 Villanova and No. 20 Purdue, it shot six and eight free throws. In Saturday’s league opener at Pittsburgh, Notre Dame went to the foul line only 10 times.

It was a different story in Wednesday’s 77-70 victory over No. 9 Louisville. Knowing the Cardinals are committed to aggressive, sometimes smothering defense, the Irish (13-2; 2-0 ACC) worked their game plan to near perfection.

Drive. The. Ball.

The result? The leading foul-shooting team in the nation at 84.1 percent coming in, Notre Dame went 22-of-25 (88 percent), including 15-of-16 (93.8 percent) in the second half.

“That proves how good of a weapon it can be for us,” said junior guard Matt Farrell, who was 8-for-9. “We haven’t been able to get to the line (but) if we’re defending, that’s really good for us.”

Notre Dame jumped into the bonus following Louisville’s seventh foul of the second half with 5:26 remaining. At the time, the Irish led by two. Offensive flow didn’t come easily. But that was OK. Coach Mike Brey stressed that his guys be just as aggressive against an aggressive defense.

After jumping into the bonus, the Irish went 11-for-12 from the foul line.

“It’s a weapon, but you’ve got to get there,” Brey said. “We should be trying to get 18-20 (shots) from the foul line every night. That should be kind of a goal for us.”

Louisville held Notre Dame to one basket the final 6:12. That came in dramatic fashion on a Steve Vasturia one-handed runner to put the Irish up five with 20 seconds left. The rest of the points arrived at the line, something that Cardinals coach Rick Pitino knew spelled trouble for his team.

“We played well enough to win,” Pitino said. “But if you have a free-throw shooting contest with Notre Dame, you’re going to lose.”

The Irish lead the nation in foul shooting at 84.4 percent.

Assists off

Notre Dame entered Wednesday the league leader in assists at 18.6 per game. It had double-digits in each of its first 14 games. The Irish finished with twice as many turnovers (12) as assists (six). It was a season low for assists, but that also was by design.

Working against a team that places such a premium on deflections, Brey wanted his team to move the ball less and take the Cardinals off the dribble more.

If the assist numbers suffered, so be it.

“We said drive the heck out of it,” Brey said. “We just wanted to keep driving the ball. This was a team you had to drive.”

Like Vasturia did to get the decisive basket in the closing seconds. Driving it worked. The Cardinals, who ranked third in the league in scoring defense at 60.4 ppg., coming in, allowed a season high for points.

“It’s hard to score on those dudes,” Brey said.

Defensive doings

Notre Dame also took another step forward defensively. For the second-straight conference contest, the Irish held the opposition below a bench-mark defensive number.

Four days after limiting Pittsburgh to 37.5 percent from the field, Louisville connected on only 39.1 percent of its shots. Anything under 42 percent has been good for the Irish. Anything under 40 percent is great.

“The goal is to win the game,” said power forward Bonzie Colson, who did his part with nine of his game-high 14 rebounds on the defensive end. “If it’s ugly, if it’s nice looking, if it’s cute, just win the game and continue to defend.”

Notre Dame also finished with a 38-35 rebounding advantage, the first time against four high-level teams (Villanova, Purdue, Pittsburgh) that it won the battle of the boards.

“We were mentally tough where, OK, we’re not flowing offensively, but can we go back and guard?” Brey said. “Our defense kind of won the game for us.”

The Irish rank fifth in the ACC in field goal percentage defense at 39.1.

Toughness tested

Seven unanswered Louisville points in 92 seconds shaved what had been a nine-point Notre Dame lead to two with more than half the second half left.

Over the final 12 minutes, it was a one-possession game 13 times with one tie (68-68). Each time the Cardinals had designs on the lead, the Irish turned them away with good offense on one end, better defense on the other.

Notre Dame simply refused to flinch, something it did do in losses to Villanova and Purdue.

“That’s kind of the personalities of the guys we have,” Brey said. “We’ve been kind of a steady group to be around. That’s benefited us well in two league games.”

After winning 11 non-conference games by an average of 22.7 points, Notre Dame has won its two ACC games by a total of eight points.

Beachem’s blues

Senior swingman V.J. Beachem is in an ACC rut.

For the second-straight league game, the Irish tri-captain struggled to get anything going on the offensive end. He finished with a season-low three points on three shots, also a season low.

In the first half, Beachem played 16 minutes with no shot attempts. In the second, he was guarded for a handful of possessions by Ryan McMahon, who is 10 inches shorter than the 6-foot-8 Beachem. On one sequence in a late clock situation, with McMahon seemingly prepared to defend a hard dribble-drive down the lane, Beachem flipped the ball to a surprised Vasturia, who was forced to make something happen late against a low shot clock.

“The worst thing to do right now is to overanalyze him,” Brey said of Beachem. “He needs to get right back on the horse on Saturday and keep playing. It could be his day on Saturday afternoon.”

Beachem enters the home game against Clemson averaging career highs for point (14.1) and rebounds (4.1). But in his first two ACC games, he’s 4-of-13 from the floor, 0-of-5 from 3 with nine points and five rebounds.

Staggering start

How crazy has the start of ACC play been? Less than a week into the conference season, Notre Dame is one of only two league teams (Florida State) undefeated.

The 13 other schools all have at least one loss. That includes Virginia, which has gone 45-9 over the last three league seasons with two regular-season championships. The Cavaliers are 1-2 after consecutive league losses at home to Florida State and Wednesday at Pittsburgh.

“To get to 2-0 in this league feels like you’re 6-0 with what’s going on,” Brey said.

The ACC has a league-record seven teams ranked in this week’s Associated Press poll.

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